After spending about a decade in captivity, the three Cleveland women who were freed Monday may struggle for years to overcome the psychological and emotional trauma they suffered.
Experts interviewed by the Dayton Daily News said survivors of kidnapping and sexual slavery often develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other mental disorders. Young kidnapping victims can wrestle with identity issues and have a hard time with social interactions and decision-making.
But treatment, counseling and family support can help victims of terrible crimes re-adapt to everyday life, according to both victim advocates and survivors. Even some of the deepest emotional scars can be healed in time, they said.
“I work with people who have experienced various degrees of trauma, and I tell them, ‘You’ll never forget what happened, but we might be able reduce the intensity with which you remember things emotionally or physically,’” said Matthew Heiner, psychologist with the University of Dayton Counseling Center.
A decade-long nightmare came to an end Monday for Amanda Berry, 27; Gina DeJesus, 23;, and Michelle Knight, 32, when neighbors and police helped the women escape from a Cleveland home where they were being held captive, authorities said. Berry’s 6-year-old daughter also was freed.
The three women disappeared between August 2002 and April 2004. Authorities said the women were abducted, enslaved and raped by 52-year-old Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver. Castro is being held on a $8 million bond, and he faces multiple charges of kidnapping and rape.
The women have been reunited with their friends and families, but it could be a long time before their lives return to normal.
Victims of kidnappings and abductions usually are not held captive for such long periods of time.
The Dayton Police Department reported about 53 kidnappings and abductions between January 1, 2012, and September 30, 2012. In many cases, the victims were only held captive for a few hours or less.
In one of the more disturbing cases, a 45-year-old Dayton man allegedly abducted a woman in her mid-20s, and he held her captive for 12 hours inside a furniture store and repeatedly raped her.
The woman suffered a “great deal” of physical and emotional trauma during those 12 hours, said Dayton police Sgt. Larry Tolpin. But for the three Cleveland women, the extended punishment, apparently occurring over a decade, must have seemed unending.
DeJesus and Berry, who both vanished as young teenagers, were confined during important periods of their development when people learn social skills and form their identities, said Daniel Davis, a board certified forensic psychologist with the Netcare Forensic Center in Columbus, who has not examined or diagnosed the victims.
“If a person is held captive for a shorter period of time, it means that prior to that they had more life experiences and they are out of the circumstances and into a supporting environment much faster,” Davis said. “These individuals, because we think their exposure is more limited, they may have more difficulty.”
Long-term confinement means the victims may be unfamiliar with the outside world.
Davis said he once treated a child whose confinement and isolation was so severe that he became scared the first time he heard other children clapping. He also was terrified the first time he saw an airplane.
“It was frightening to him because he didn’t know what these things were,” he said.
Everybody’s situation and circumstances are unique, but survivors of sexual assault and other trauma commonly experience guilt, shame, nightmares, flashbacks, depression, substance abuse, panic attacks and other disorders, said Sandy Hunt, director of the Victim Witness Division of the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office.
Friends and family members often want to be overprotective of victims, and do everything for them, Hunt said. But victims often need to regain confidence in their own independence.
“Survivors need time to regain their strength and supporters need to empower them,” she said. “(It) is essential for the survivor to regain a sense of control over her life, and that is why the survivor must make (her) own decisions.”
The Cleveland women will likely feel grief over their lost childhoods, and they may still feel unsafe, said Theresa Flores, a survivor of child sex trafficking who earned a master’s degree from the University of Dayton and is the author of “The Slave Across the Street.”
Survivors often feel guilt or blame themselves for being unable to prevent their abductions or escape their imprisonment, said Flores, who was forced into sexual servitude at the age of 15.
But victims must learn to accept that they did all they could in dangerous and life-threatening situations, and their choices may be why they are alive today.
Flores said hopefully such feelings of disappointment will subside with time and through intensive counseling.
“It’s going to be hard, but they will be able to get back in society and be productive citizens,” she said.
People are resilient, and intensive services, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, have proven effective at helping overcome trauma, psychologists said.
Survivors cope in different ways, and how people respond to horrible events is often based on their prior experiences and feelings and beliefs.
“It’s not a given that these people will be walking around traumatized for the rest of their lives,” Heiner said.
The incredible rescue this week of three women and a child held captive in Cleveland has focused attention on sexual predators. Authorities estimate that more than 1,000 Ohio teens are involved in the sex trade, but some believe not enough is being done to punish those who prey on young people. For more on the story see Sunday’s Dayton Daily News.