TORONTO ONTARIO, – Three children born in captivity and held along with their parents by a Taliban-linked group are facing a long but by no means impassable road to recovery, psychological experts said Thursday.
The circumstances surrounding the birth of the children of Canadian Joshua Boyle and his American wife Caitlan Coleman are horrific by any measure and present no shortage of potential obstacles for the future, they said.
But the fact that the family was first held and then rescued as a unit, coupled with the natural resilience of children, suggests that healing is possible in the months and years to come.
Boyle, Coleman and their three young offspring were liberated on Wednesday from Pakistan where they had recently been moved by the Haqqani network, a group U.S. officials call a terrorist organization with links to the Taliban.
There were no children in the equation when Boyle and Coleman were originally abducted in Afghanistan in 2012 after touring Russia and parts of central Asia. Coleman was pregnant with her first child at the time and gave birth to him in custody.
Two more children followed, a boy in 2015 and reportedly a girl born just two months ago.
Statements made by the Boyle and Coleman families suggest the children have been kept with their parents throughout their lives, but have had to witness violence including sexual assaults against their mother.
Experts said its impossible to offer conclusive analysis on a case in which so few details are known, but said the existence of a family unit and personal attachments bodes well for the future.
“I’m sure (the parents) would have worked to protect their children as much as they could from whatever they were experiencing,” said Phil Ritchie, psychologist and clinical lead at the in-patient psychiatry unit of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
“Spending time together, being able to be a family as much as possible even under those really distorted circumstances, if there were opportunities to have some play, even just moments of sanity during the day, those would be tremendously important.”
Early indications from the families suggest Ritchie’s assessment was accurate. A series of videos released during the family’s captivity chronicle efforts to maintain a sense of normalcy for the children.
Patrick and Linda Boyle, Joshua’s parents, previously said the videos showing the then family of four were devastating for loved ones back in North America.
They said it was heartbreaking to watch their grandsons observing their surroundings while listening to their mother describe how they were made to watch her being “defiled.”
“It is an indescribable emotional sense one has watching a grandson making faces at the camera, while hearing our son’s leg chains clanging up and down on the floor as he tries to settle his son,” the Boyles said in a written statement late last year. “It is unbelievable that they have had to shield their sons from their horrible reality for four years.”
The parents said their son told them in a letter that he and his wife tried to protect their children by pretending their signs of captivity were part of a game being played with guards.
Katy Kamkar, psychologist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said children exposed to trauma are more likely to experience distressing flashbacks, have trouble concentrating and problems developing trusting relationships.
Kids from such environments are also prone to heightened sensitivity and anxiety about future threats, she said.
Even the youngest of the children is not immune to such effects despite her limited time in captivity, Kamkar said, since stress levels on the mother can create pre-natal conditions that influence a child’s development.
Kamkar said care for the Boyle-Coleman children is likely to be lengthy and multi-faceted, requiring input from both medical and psychological professionals.
She said the key in most such cases, however, is to allow children to process their reactions in an environment that lets them come to terms with their new norm.
“Most important right now is to be provided with an environment where there’s a sense of warmth, there’s connection with loved ones, and especially a sense of safety and security,” she said.
Kamkar said the children will need to be reassured that their reactions to the trauma they’ve experienced are normal and will likely need ongoing support for years to come.
The family was not in U.S. custody on Thursday, though they were together in a safe location in Pakistan, according to a U.S. national security official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the case publicly.
U.S. officials had planned on moving the family out of Pakistan on an American transport plane, but officials said the family would prefer to fly commercially to Canada.
Details of their reintegration into Canadian society are unknown, as are plans for treatment for the children. But Ritchie said never to underestimate a young person’s ability to overcome adversity, even at an early age.
“Kids have tremendous potential for resilience,” he said. “I remain optimistic that that capacity for recovery would be there.”