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Concerns arise over Elian's emotional health

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

Elian Gonzalez is up late these days, doesn't go to school and bit his Miami family's chosen psychologist on the arm recently. Earlier this week he told family members that he fears returning to Cuba means being put out to sea -- on a raft -- to go back the way he came.

Mental health experts selected by the government to advise it on returning Elian to his father's custody say they have spotted signs that Elian is under
extraordinary stress. They talk of ''a progressive deterioration'' in his condition and say the political whirlwind in which he has been embroiled could be
causing him emotional harm.

Supporters of the Miami family's efforts to keep Elian here dispute that assessment. They say the only time his mood changes is after he has spoken with his father on the phone.

Nearly five months after Elian became the center of an international custody fight, his mental state, and the impact of returning him to his father and the battle surrounding him, have become the topic of debate between those who want to see a quick reunion with his father and those who want him to remain with his Miami relatives.

''We have seen a progressive deterioration,'' said Dr. Paulina Kernberg, a child psychoanalyst from Cornell University medical college who is one of three mental health experts chosen by the Justice Department to advise on how to reunite the child with his father. ''We are all seriously, seriously concerned about this misuse of this situation of this boy who has enough tragedy to deal with in his life.''

Kernberg has never met Elian, and is basing her observations on television footage and conversations with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez and great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez.


Added Dr. Jerry Wiener, professor emeritus in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University and another advisor to the Justice
Department ''His situation is deteriorating . . . Elian is in very deep trouble.  Either things are being put in his mouth or he's been led to understand that he's the one who makes decisions.''  Wiener also has never met Elian. But the government experts say they no longer see news video of Elian giving toothy grins, hearty waves and enthusiastic V-signs outside his great-uncle's Little Havana home. When captured on camera lately, the 6-year-old looks tired, wary, lackluster, they say.

By not shielding the boy from the political tug-of-war over his fate and by refusing to work out an orderly transfer to his father, Elian's Miami relatives  ''have put him in harm's way in every possible way,'' Wiener said.

Armando Gutierrez, the family's spokesman who has spent long hours in Lazaro Gonzalez's house and seen the child up close throughout most of his nearly five month stay here, disputes the assessment.


"I don't think Elian is deteriorating. Elian is a fighter and I think Elian feels comfortable with the protection he's getting from his family; he knows they're fighting for him,'' he said.

Gutierrez says he has no concerns that the child's current situation could cause him to suffer a nervous breakdown. ''He didn't have a breakdown in 50 hours in the waters,'' Gutierrez said. ''I have not seen any signs of him having a nervous breakdown.''

Either way, there are signs that the child has been experiencing stress lately -- and acting out.

This week, Barry University president Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin reported that the child misunderstood a discussion of taking him to Washington to mean he was going to Cuba -- on a raft.

''They were preparing to go to Washington,'' the nun told Good Morning America, in an account confirmed by Gutierrez, who consulted with Marisleysis.  ''He woke up and was so upset because he thought he would have to go back on the raft. And so it took pretty much until we could go pick Marisleysis up at the hospital, that he began to see that there was no raft and that he was not going anywhere.''

No Miami family member has told the boy that he would return to Cuba on a plane rather than a raft, Gutierrez said. The subject is taboo, although Gutierrez said he believes Juan Miguel has told Elian in a telephone call he could come home ''just like the grandmothers,'' who visited earlier this year.

During Wednesday night's meetings between Lazaro, Marisleysis and Attorney General Janet Reno at the nun's Miami Beach house, Elian bit Alina Lopez-Gottardi, the psychologist who has been working with Elian since December.

Lopez-Gottardi did not return a message from The Herald, but a witness who was in Sister Jeanne's house at the time said the child had been mostly bored during the meeting and had amused himself by watching cartoons in a nearby room.

He spent the evening ''hyperkinetic,'' the witness said, running between cartoons, the door to the dining room, where Reno was meeting family members inside, and the kitchen, where government officials, two psychologists, a baby sitter hired by Sister Jeanne and others had gathered.

 At one point, the boy reached up to the counter to grab at some food or a drink. Lopez-Gottardi reached around him with one arm to pull him back. He sunk his teeth into her arm as she shouted, No me muerdas! No me muerdas!, ''Don't bite me!''

She then let him go, and he raced off.

Said Kernberg '''A child who has problems psychologically, tends to do that [bite] when they feel misunderstood or controlled or coerced.''

Also of concern to the government psychiatrists was last week's homemade videotape of the child angrily telling his father he did not want to return to Cuba, and that Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family should come to Miami.  Up until that point, Wiener said, the child had looked happy and well adjusted on television footage. Suddenly, he appeared to be angrily emulating his great-uncle, he said.

''He looked scripted and rehearsed. He looked a little bit like a robot, repeating these gestures,'' Wiener said. ''I mean what kind of 6-year-old talks like that?

What kind of 6-year-old gives that kind of a statement, in a rehearsed way on camera. It was shameful.''

Cuban Americans who advocate the child staying here -- and argue that his father should defect and join him in Miami -- say they saw in the videotape the heartfelt sentiment of a child who understands perfectly his political environment.


But even if that were true, said Dr. Alan Delamater, a pediatric psychologist of the University of Miami, it is the responsibility of his Miami family to prepare Elian for what he characterized as an ''imminent transfer'' to his father, as dictated by the government. ''I do think even 6-year-olds have their own thoughts and opinions and

Certainly it is important for adults to understand how kids feel and to take that into account,'' said Delamater, who is not one of the government's advisors but who has been watching the situation for months.

''But at the same time, responsible adults make decisions as responsible adults do. They don't allow 6-year-olds who are in such conditions and vulnerable to dictate what their conditions should be.''

Others were alarmed by the time of the taping, sometime after midnight, against a backdrop of a chaotic, politically charged home life rather than the peace and protection that they say a child who only recently lost his mother would require.

''He's not going to school. He's having instruction at home. He doesn't have privacy. He doesn't have peer relations,'' said Kernberg, a fluent Spanish speaker and native of Chile.

''He doesn't have a daily routine. He's being kept up to ungodly hours at night.

You saw him playing at 1130 [p.m.] with all the lights. He's facing all the people who are shouting and demonstrating, which they have the right to do but which is not so nice for the child.''

Gutierrez responded that Elian is doing fine with ''home schooling'' by a teacher and visits from his classmates from the Lincoln Marti School.  And he disputes that the child is sleep deprived. ''Most of the time he falls asleep at 9,'' Gutierrez said. ''Sometimes 730, sometimes 830. I'm telling you, this kid gets lots of sleep.''
Some wonder why ACFC and other fathers groups have taken such a great interest in the Gonzalez case. The Gonzalez saga could well end up being as important as the infamous McMartin child abuse case was.

McMartin educated the American public about the out-of-control vagaries of false child abuse charges in the courts, and the fallibility of child witnesses in such cases, leading to substantial reform in many states.

Gonzalez could well be the tragic but unavoidably pivotal case exposing the commonplace legal strategy of programming a child against another parent (diagnosed as Parental Alienation Syndrome), often selfishly inculcated as a buttress in creating or maintaining
myopic "child chattel" parenting schemes in divorce and paternity cases.

Studies show that children in states where true shared parenting is the standard in public policy are significantly better adjusted, happier with their relationships with both parents, have fewer emotional problems, and perform better in school.

PAS continues to be a recognizeable and tangible set of behaviors by parent(s), with effects easily seen in children. Many in the psychological professions are very well aware of its existence, but the APA continues to
pretend that it does not exist.

We can only hope that the APA is preparing itself to finally acknowledge the reality of PAS, and the serious emotional consequences for children that invariably
arise when the natural affections of a child for a parent are systematically destroyed by adults with conflicting social, sexual, or political agendae.

The American Coalition for Fathers and Children

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