5-Year-Old Ethan Will Remember Trauma of Kidnapping

Mental health experts say boy held in bunker for a week will need therapy.

February 5, 2013, 10:34 AM

Feb. 5, 2013— -- The 5-year-old named Ethan who was held in an underground bunker for a week in Alabama after his captor pulled the boy from a school bus and killed the driver, will likely remember the trauma.

"Will this child remember this? The answer is absolutely," said Rahil Briggs, a psychologist and director of the Healthy Steps program at Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "We know across the board that memories attached to a highly emotional situation seem to have the most staying power in our minds. It will have quite an impact." Briggs has not seen or treated the child.

Ethan was rescued physically unharmed in an FBI raid of the underground bunker near Midland, Ala., on Tuesday, where he was being held hostage by 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, who was killed in the raid.

The boy's great uncle, Berlin Enfinger, told Good Morning America today that Ethan was "happy to be home" and was already playing with his toy dinosaurs. The boy turns 6 on Wednesday.

READ: Ethan's family says they are doing 'cartwheels' over his release.

"He's very excited and he looks good," said Enfinger. "He was our Ethan. He seemed to be as normal as a child could be with a situation like that."

Ethan was still unable to tell his parents what transpired during the week he was held captive, according to Debra Cook, who with the rest of the family calls her great nephew, "little buddy."

Neighbors reported that Ethan may have Asperger's syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. But that would have had little bearing on how the boy coped with his captivity, according to experts.

"My guess is that it was not a major feature," said Kenneth Dodge, a clinical psychologist and professor of public policy at Duke University. "Any 5- or 6-year-old going through this kind of experience -- let alone an adult -- would be traumatized."

The images of little Ethan sparked memories in Katie Beers, who was only 10 when she was held in an underground bunker in Long Island by a family friend for 17 days in 1993. Today, at 30, she looks back on the ordeal in a new book, "Buried Memories."

Watch the full story -- including an interview with Katie Beers -- on "20/20: SAVED!" Friday at 10 ET

"I'm really hoping that he's going to be able to get the privacy and counseling he is ultimately going to need to return to some kind of normalcy," Beers, who is now married with two children, 3 and 18-months, and lives in Pennsylvania, told ABCNews.com today. "For me, I had no normalcy before my ordeal. I went from one abnormalcy to another."

Beers was abused as a child and then sexually assaulted by her captor, John Esposito. She said in a previous interview with ABC, "I would never say you are 100 percent recovered."

Read about Katie Beers' 1993 kidnapping.

Ethan's great aunt said the family had no idea what Dykes may have done with the boy during his captivity. "As far as he goes, we were given just very little information on him," said Cook.

Even though many of the details are not clear, what Ethan experienced was likely "quite scary and traumatic," according to psychologist Dodge. "I can only imagine what it was like for him."

"Children go through all kinds of trauma and this sounds pretty acute and severe," he said. "What we know about these kinds of general experiences is that there is a lot of temporary anxiety."

Kidnapping Trauma Can Linger

After trauma, children are likely to have temporary bouts of sleeplessness and cling to adults. Some will want to talk about the experience, and other children will not.

The long-term effects of trauma can include the signs of post-traumatic stress: chronic sleeplessness, anxiety, depression as well as substance abuse, said Dodge. Therapy is important, especially in the immediate aftermath of the experience.

"But the good majority of children will survive the trauma well in the long run, due to the support of their caregivers," he said.

Getting a child to talk about the experience can be helpful, but "it's a very fine line to walk and a hard one for adults," according to Montefiore's Briggs. "Make sure you are creating an environment and clear message that the child can talk about it."

But adults should be careful not to respond in a "fearful or anxious" way, said Briggs. "Otherwise you are sending him the message, 'Oops, don't go there.'"

How Ethan copes will depend largely on how stable his life has been up until now.

"The strongest predictor of how a child functions after a trauma is how they were functioning before a trauma," said Briggs. "If he was, indeed, doing quite well, and had good coping skills, stability and routine, that's important for a 5-year-old and we hope he will emerge relatively intact. Children are very resilient."

And for now, Ethan's family also seems resilient.

"I was telling some of the family that if I could I would do cartwheels all the way down the road," said his great aunt Cook after learning that boy had survived unharmed.

"I was just ecstatic," she said. "Everything just seemed like it was so much clearer. We had all been walking around in a fog and everybody was just excited. There's no words to put how we felt and how relieved we were."

Officials have not yet provided any further details on the raid, citing the ongoing investigation. Officials say that Ethan is still in the hospital.

Ethan's captor allegedly shot and killed a school bus driver, Albert Poland Jr., 66, last Tuesday and threatened to kill all the children on the bus before taking the boy.

"He said he was going to kill us, going to kill us all," Tarrica Singletary, 14, told ABC News this week.

Dykes had been holed up in his underground bunker with the abducted boy for a week as police tried to negotiate with him through a PVC pipe. Police were careful not to anger Dykes, who was believed to be watching news reports from inside the bunker.

Dykes lived in Florida until two years ago, The Associated Press reported, and has an adult daughter, but the two lost touch years ago, neighbor Michael Creel said. When he returned to Alabama, neighbors say he once beat a dog with a lead pipe and had threatened to shoot children who set foot on his property.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events