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Tuesday, 1 February, 2000, 15:31 GMT
'Elian is at psychological risk'
Elian Gonzalez
Elian Gonzalez is at the centre of custody battle
By News Online Health Reporter Richard Warry

The international custody battle raging around six-year-old Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez must be resolved as quickly as possible if he is not to be permanently scarred psychologically by the controversy, a psychologist has warned.

It does a child no good whatsoever to be caught up in a custody dispute

Jill Lindon, clinical psychologist
Elian has made news headlines around the world since he was plucked from the sea after a boat smuggling Cuban refugees into the US sank last November.

His mother and stepfather both drowned as the boat went down.

Relatives in Florida have temporary custody of the boy, and US politicians want to make him a citizen.

However, his family in Cuba, backed by the Cuban government, want him returned to his father.

Attachment bonds

The dispute has caused a storm of protest in Cuba
The case has arouned strong passions, both in Elian's homeland and the US.

Chartered clinical psychologist Jillian Lindon, based in East Sussex, told BBC News Online that the psychological impact of the furore could potentially be very damaging for Elian.

She said: "It does a child no good whatsoever to be caught up in a custody dispute."

Ms Lindon said it was vital to assess the attachment bonds that Elian had made during his young life, and to investigate whether his surviving relatives were in a position to meet the child's emotional needs.

An attachment bond helps a child to feel secure about its future, a vital pre-requisite for emotional development and the ability to form healthy relationships with other people.
Elian Gonzalez
The experience has been very traumatic for Elian
Ms Lindon said that Elian's current experience had been very traumatic and disruption to his attachment bonds may have serious implications for his state of mind.

"When things go wrong it can have very serious psychological consequences for a child, who may develop a variety of attachment disorders," she said.

"These can be anxiety-related problems, such as sleeplessness, poor eating, difficulty concentrating and difficulty making friends.

"In the longer term sufferers may grow into adults who cannot form very good relationships."

Old enough to comprehend

This needs to be resolved very quickly. For the child to be left in a limbo of uncertainty would be appalling

Jill Lindon, clinical psychologist
Ms Lindon said that at the age of six, Elian was old enough to comprehend something of the controversy surrounding him. The fact that his situation had become so public was likely to intensify the psychological risk.

"That is likely to make him incredibly worried and insecure and do him no good whatsoever," she said.

"I would emphasise strongly that this thing needs to be resolved very quickly. For the child to be left in a limbo of uncertainty would be appalling.

"It appears that Elian's situation has become a political debate and that a six-year-old child's needs have become secondary."

Post traumatic stress

Ms Lindon said there was a good chance that Elian, as well as being anxious and uncertain, was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after witnessing the loss of his mother and step-father and being in fear of his own life.

PTSD is a disturbing psychological condition where people relive painful memories against their will.

The memories can be triggered by the slightest detail reminiscent of the original traumatic event.

This leads to feelings of isolation and a sense of losing control. Symptoms can include:

  • Depression
  • Dissociation
  • Emotional detachment
  • Fear
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Excessive vigilance
  • Irritability

Sufferers can also have difficulties concentrating and sleeping, or may be plagued by nightmares and flashbacks.

Ms Lindon said: "All of these things could add up to a serious problem for this little lad. He needs to know where he is going and who he will be with."

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See also:

27 Jan 00 | Americas
Elian reunited with grandmothers
06 Jan 00 | Americas
Battle rages over Cuban boy
22 Dec 99 | Americas
Thousands march for Cuban boy
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