Q. It was reported that Elian was in the room when Janet Reno and his Miami relatives discussed his fate. Was this desirable?
A. I'd advise both parties to speak at least part of the time without the child present, because we don't want one parent to say something negative about the other parent. We don't want to sway a child by our commentary, given that he needs the love of each party. I have no information about what exactly was discussed and whether Elian was asked to leave at any point.
Q. Should Elian be allowed to choose which of his relatives gets custody?
A. Generally, young children are not asked whom they want to live with. It puts a great amount of pressure and responsibility on the child, who is forced to choose between people he loves. I wrote the custody investigation manual for Miami, and we were very careful not to use the child's preference. Decision making through a child's eyes may not reflect what's in his best emotional interest--he may want to live with Mom because her rules are more lax or with Dad because he buys him more things. Adults need to figure out what's in the child's best interest. In custody cases involving grandparents, U.S. laws give the parent a stronger right than any other person.
Q. What are the possible psychological effects on Elian of his ordeal?
A. One of the unfortunate parts of the case that we've glossed over is the fact that Elian lost his mother. I don't know what else he witnessed, but it had to have been traumatic. A child who suffers extreme trauma needs to receive immediate attention to be able to express his feelings about it. We don't know if Elian is getting counseling, crying himself to sleep at night, or anything about his reaction. People around a child often think they're helping by diverting his attention from the trauma. But there needs to be a proper sense of mourning, of being able to cry and express sadness. Otherwise, these things don't go away. I'm of the firm belief that what happens to us as children affects who we are as adults. By avoiding dealing with your emotions--pretending the tragedy never happened--it limits your ability to love and connect with others.
Q. Will his celebrity hinder his recovery?
A. Media attention and becoming a cultural icon could cause a child to repress what's going on. He may feel he represents something greater than himself. He could get the message that he has to hold in his feelings because adults are counting on him to be strong.
Q. What could help him heal?
A. I hope he's getting help and counseling, but I don't know for sure. He needs a lot of love and understanding of what's happened to him. I'm not necessarily saying that there has to be a mental health professional on the job, but if it were my child, that's what I would wish for.