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Monday, April 17, 2000

Associated Press
Elian Gonzalez.

For Elian's sake

The boy's peers at Kawaiahao School
agree unanimously that his father
should raise him, in either
Florida or Cuba

By Pat Omandam


While the entire nation this week tunes in to what could be an emotional conclusion to the international custody battle over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, a panel of his peers at Kawaiahao School in Honolulu believes the Cuban boy should be raised by his father, no matter where he lives.

"If I were Elian, I would tell him to ask his dad to come to Florida because everyone will be happy," said Jessica Fitzgerald, age 8.

Added 6-year-old Arlon Louie: "I would have my dad come to America."

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Children at Kawaiahao School discuss the Elian Gonzalez
case with their teacher, Susan Costello.

Surprisingly, the 19 students in teacher Susan Costello's first-through-third-grade class were not only aware of Elian's story, they unanimously agreed he should be returned to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who remains in the United States waiting to be reunited with his son.

The well-mannered children, who ranged in age from 6 to 9, were eager to sit in a circle Friday to talk about a topic they are familiar with, Costello said. Many have also spoken to their parents about it, including Keaton McFadden, 8.

"My dad said he would rather see Elian go back to Cuba," she said.

Initially, most of the class said Elian should decide for himself where he should live. If given such a choice, most said they would continue to live with their parents in Hawaii, while a few wanted their families to move to other states and countries.

One boy, mindful of the opportunity presented, chose Disneyland.

But after giving it some thought, they all agreed with Kawaiahao Schools Director Wendy Lagareta that they are too young to make such a big decision. They said they would listen to what their parents said they should do.

"Both my mom and dad said listen to Janet Reno," said Aaron Nagamine, 7.

Attorney General Reno is urging Elian's Miami relatives to return the boy to his father, but they have not complied. She warned that the United States has the authority to take action and will do so in a reasonable and measured way.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Eric Tsuji and Caitlin Higa discusses the Elian Gonzalez
case with their class last week at Kawaiahao School.

Meanwhile, no matter what happens, local experts on child psychology say Elian may suffer emotional problems once things settle down. Dr. Barbara DeBaryshe, an associate specialist at the Center on the Family at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, said there is often a strong short-term impact for any child who loses a parent and goes through such a "horrific survival experience" as Elian has.

These children are likely to cling to adults, wet their beds, and have a lot of fears and insecurities. Nevertheless, these are recoverable problems, particularly if the child has the support of loving and consistent adults and peers, she said.

The UH Center on the Family does research and education relating to the well-being of children and families.

"The more times kids change learning environments, the less stability they have in loving and responsive caretakers and family members in their lives and the harder that is for them," DeBaryshe said.

"On the other hand, kids can benefit, and do benefit from having more than one or two loving parental adult figures. Extended families are great for kids and are a huge benefit," she said.

DeBaryshe said because of his age, Elian probably doesn't believe his mother is gone. Elian was found on an inner tube floating off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day. His mother and all the others on board died while trying to take a boat from Cuba to Florida.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Nicole Hodges discusses the Elian Gonzalez case
with her class at Kawaiahao School.

"A lot of 6-year-olds, I think, might suffer from a very unsure conceptualization of what death is like, compared to an older kid or an adult. So they would still not understand this is a permanent thing."

Ideally, DeBaryshe would like to see everyone step back from the picture and let the father and uncle work it out so they can shelter Elian from the public spotlight. Parents who divorce do it all the time, she said.

Although no one can say for sure if Elian understands the controversy that surrounds him, 6-year-old boys in general think in very concrete terms of black and white, said Mark Rapport, professor of clinical child psychology at the UH Department of Psychology.

"They don't see the gray areas ... That doesn't come for many, many years," he said.

Rapport said there's no telling how much "brainwashing" Elian's Miami relatives have done to try to convince him that staying in the United States is the right thing to do. Videotapes of Elian saying he wants to remain don't show any evidence of his suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress. But Rapport said such a diagnosis can only be made in person.

"He seems to be relatively happy and settled, but I think he's being confused in terms of this good-bad, Castro-Cuba kind of thing," he said.

Rapport, who is from Miami, said Cubans there are wonderful people but they like to make statements. Because they are very anti-Castro, he believes they are using the boy as a pawn to emphasize how bad Cuba is.

"That, to me, has nothing to do with who the boy rightfully belongs to. You don't take kids away from parents even if the parents live in Communist countries," Rapport said.

"That's just absurd. I mean, I don't understand the reasoning here."

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