WMU News

Many issues raised by abducted teen's return

March 13, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- As the circumstances of Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping and safe return unfold, the Salt Lake City 15-year-old is likely to face intense questioning about her relationship with the people who held her hostage for nine months, and issues associated with getting back to her once-normal life, says WMU psychology professor Dr. Richard Spates, an expert on such topics as hostages and victims of terrorism.

"We don't know much about what she endured during her captivity, but being kept away from her ordinary lifestyle was disruptive," he says. "In being forced to stay with her captors against her will, she would have to have undergone some adaptation."

Smart first made headlines after being kidnapped from her bedroom last June more than nine months ago. On March 12, authorities found Smart, along with a couple suspected in the kidnapping, in a Salt Lake City suburb.

Getting a handle on the "world's perspective" that evolved during her capture may require a massive readjustment, says Spates. "Her world was acutely narrowed during the time of her captivity. Everybody knows her; she's an icon. Elizabeth Smart probably has no idea that she was the topic of restaurant conversation in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

"The case brings with it an instant stardom of sorts, with no preparation at all," Spates says.

Because Smart has been the focus of widespread national attention, including a segment on "America's Most Wanted," people following the case may be curious about why she wasn't found earlier, especially given news reports that she may have spent a fair amount of time in her own community, says Spates.

"Over time, a child of this age might simply be persuaded to accept the situation. We don't know what she was told by her captors," Spates says, adding that her proximity to home could have been part of the abductors' storyline. "If isolated enough, even adults can be made to believe what the captor wants you to believe."

That sense of isolation also plays a role in how victims respond during the post-captivity period. "There is a bonding that sometimes occurs, and the person who has become bonded often resists punishment of the captors," says Spates whose expertise extends to POW situations. "That comes off as strange to the observing public, but we should not be surprised if that happens. The captors were the source of meeting her needs for so long."

Richard Spates is available for comment and can be reached at (269) 387-8332 or <richard.spates@wmich.edu>.

Media contact: Gail Towns, 269 387-8400, gail.towns@wmich.edu

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