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Child Psychologist Dr. Jon Shaw Discusses Developments in Elian Gonzalez Case

Aired April 22, 2000 - 4:42 p.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: It has been a harrowing day and a harrowing five months for arguably the most famous 6-year-old boy in the world. Rescued after losing his mother at sea, life in a virtual goldfish bowl, and finally early this morning, forced removal from his Miami relatives, and then the sudden reunion with his Cuban father in Maryland.

Joining us now is child psychologist -- psychiatrist Jon Shaw. He is affiliated with the University of Miami. Dr. Shaw has been closely watching the Elian Gonzalez case.

Dr. Shaw, thank you for joining us.

DR. JON SHAW, CHILD PSYCHIATRIST: Nice to be with you.

KAGAN: You could certainly say a picture, a couple pictures tells a big story today, starting early this morning with those pictures that we see. That seems so terrifying with the men with the guns coming in to get Elian Gonzalez. And then you go a few hours later, and there he is, reunited with his father -- What can it be like for a 6-year-old boy to go through a day like this.

SHAW: Well, clearly it was a very traumatic moment for him this morning. He was obviously very frightened, shocked, distressed. He didn't know for sure what was going to happen to him. But I think it shows how extraordinarily resilient children really are, and how really correct the psychological decision was to reunite him with his father.

And one only needs to look at the picture of the father and son together to know that this is the right emotional decision. And one can see the loving emotional reciprocity in their relationship with each other.

KAGAN: Well, what kind of body language do you see in this picture, Dr. Shaw, besides the smiles?

SHAW: Well, I see in both faces, in both facial expressions, a sense of contentment, a sense of relief, a sense of being home again. And what Elian needed more than anything else was to establish the continuity once again with his childhood, his father, ultimately his four grandparents and loving family. He was terribly traumatized four to five months ago by the death of his mother, his own near-death experience.

And clearly the Cuban family loved him, cared for him. He did everything he could to please them. But he really needed to be back home again with his own father. And that's clearly evident in the picture that you saw before you.

KAGAN: Well, there's no doubt that this little boy is so photogenic and charismatic and very likable to see. But do you see anything about these smiles in these two pictures that we see at the reunion that look different to you than the smiles we saw when he was playing in the yard of his Miami relatives?

SHAW: Well, I think in the last three to four weeks that Elian has really been in a traumatic situation. He's been under enormous psychological pressure, political expectations. He became kind of a symbol to convey anti-Castro sentiment. And I think more and more one saw a sense of vacuousness and a sense of dysphoria, as he is kind of paraded forth before the crowd in front of his home to kind of signal to them somehow that he was on their side.

But I think we saw today that his emotional heart and where he really belongs is back with his primary family.

KAGAN: If you were advising this family, what would you tell them to help Elian?

SHAW: The Cuban family?

KAGAN: To his father.

SHAW: Well, I think to go slow. I think Elian does need to have an opportunity to meet with his -- Marisleysis, his great-uncle, Mr. Lazaro. I think they should have visitation rights. And I think to go slow and give Elian a chance to kind of reconnect with his childhood past, his primary family. But he also needs to maintain the ties with the Cuban Miami family that really has showered him with so much love and so much care and so much affection over the last few months.

KAGAN: Well, as we reported at the top of the hour, that family has landed in the Washington area, and they're headed, literally at this minute, over to Andrews Air Force Base -- You think it would be appropriate for them to meet, but at what time. Does the father need a few days alone with the boy? Or would the sooner the better to have everybody together?

SHAW: No, I think that Marisleysis and Mr. Lazaro Gonzalez are emotionally exhausted, they're emotionally distressed, they're sleep deprived, they're passionately disappointed. And I don't think this is the moment when they should really have access to Elian. They really need to deescalate emotionally. I think the father needs to have a couple days alone with Elian. And then in a titratable manner, a gradual manner, really reintroduce Marisleysis and the great-uncle.

And so hopefully there will be a family reunion where hopefully everybody in the family can reconnect and have more of a harmonious coming together.

KAGAN: There've been a lot of concerns, especially from the Cuban American community, what faces Elian when he goes back to Cuba. If you could be consulting Fidel Castro, what would you like to see being done for this 6-year-old?

SHAW: Well, I would like Castro to back off. I'd like the cameras, the media to back off, to leave this boy alone, to give him some private time alone with his father, alone with his family outside a group and political expectations, and let him be a little boy that gradually works his way toward his own future, and not to be a repository for political agendas.

KAGAN: A big wish for a little boy who's become an international political symbol. Dr. Jon Shaw, thank you for joining us today.

SHAW: Well, thank you.

KAGAN: Brian.


And now we have this programming note. CNN's YOUR MONEY, which is normally seen at this time, is preempted because of our breaking news coverage of today's Elian Gonzalez developments.

While more legal wrangling over Elian lies ahead, today's father and son reunion closes at least one chapter of this emotionally charged story.

CNN's John Zarrella looks back at the events, months in the making, leading up to today's high drama.


JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On Thanksgiving Day, it was simply a heart-wrenching tale, a little Cuban boy found by fishermen, alive and floating on an inner tube.

SAM CIANCIO, FISHERMAN: We just dove in the water and we went after it, and when we got there, it was a human being, it was alive. I mean, the kid was alive.

ZARRELLA: Only Elian Gonzalez and two others survived the trip from Cuba. More than 10 others died, among them the boy's mother.

Within days, Elian had become a heroic figure in Miami's Cuban community.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It's definitely a miracle.

ZARRELLA: A symbol of the 40-year plight of Cubans seeking freedom from Castro.

And within days, the battle lines were being drawn across the Florida Straits.

MARISLEYSIS GONZALEZ, ELIAN'S COUSIN: I asked him, Do you want to go back? You know, or you want to stay here. And he said, I don't want to go back.

JUAN MIGUEL GONZALES, ELIAN'S FATHER (voice of translator): Even if I have to go over there to get him myself, I'll go get him. If the question is, will he be with me again, the answer is yes, he belongs with his family.

ZARRELLA: While the INS tried to decide how to handle the situation, temporary custody was given to the boy's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who lives in Miami. And in the weeks that followed, Elian celebrated his 6th birthday, spent Christmas in Miami, went to Disney World. Elian got plenty. What he didn't have was his father.

In early January, the federal government ruled.

DORIS MEISSNER, INS COMMISSIONER: We have determined that Elian should be reunited with his father, Mr. Juan Gonzalez.

ZARRELLA: That determination set a series of events in motion. Civil disobedience broke out on the streets of Miami as Cuban Americans protested the decision. Through it all, the attorney general stood her ground.

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think it's important that we recognize that what is at stake here is a bond between a parent and his child.

ZARRELLA: Elian's Miami relatives moved quickly, asking the federal court to require INS grant the boy a political asylum hearing. As the legal maneuvering began, Elian's two grandmothers flew in from Havana. It was now the end of January. Visiting their grandson wasn't easy. Neither side could agree on a meeting place.

After one failed attempt, Elian and his grandmothers met at the home of the president of a local university.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Today was about the future of a child.

ZARRELLA: But the visit did nothing to pry Elian loose from his Miami relatives. That didn't change until Federal Judge Michael Moore ruled that granting asylum is within the discretion of the attorney general.

Within a week, the attorneys for the Miami relatives filed a motion with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals seeking a swift hearing. But the family refused to give the INS a written guarantee that the boy would be turned over if the appeals failed.

SPENCER EIG, MIAMI LEGAL TEAM: INS has asked Lazaro Gonzalez to sign a piece of paper guaranteeing that he'll do whatever they tell him to do.

ZARRELLA: It was now the end of March. By the end of the first week in April, pressure on the Miami relatives increased immensely. Elian's father, Juan Miguel, arrived in Washington, expecting and insisting to be reunited with his boy.

But negotiations for a voluntary transfer of the boy to his father went nowhere. Attorney General Reno came to Miami to personally try to work out an acceptable arrangement. It didn't happen, and the family was ordered to turn Elian over the next day. They refused.

On April 19, the Miami relatives and their supporters won a short-lived victory. In Little Havana, there was jubilation. The appeals court ordered Elian Gonzalez must remain in the United States while the appeals process is under way. But the court would take no side over Elian's custody.

Three days later, armed federal officers took Elian before the sun came up.

John Zarrella, CNN, Miami.


KAGAN: Just ahead, we'll get Cuba's reaction to today's dramatic events from CNN's Martin Savidge, who is in Havana. Also, we'll check in with CNN's Mark Potter on the situation this hour in Miami.

Stay with us.



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