Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Fink! Still at Large: The Case Involving the Colorado Family and the Balloon Hoax Raises Questions about Adults Who Exploit Children. How Would You Help a Child Traumatized by Such an Incident?

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Fink! Still at Large: The Case Involving the Colorado Family and the Balloon Hoax Raises Questions about Adults Who Exploit Children. How Would You Help a Child Traumatized by Such an Incident?

Article excerpt

The incident involving the boy in the balloon is sure to have triggered a lot of concern among psychiatrists who watched the drama unfold.

In my view, the Heene family's misuse of their child is not so different from the drug pusher who recruits a 10-or 11-year-old runner. In the latter case, the child also is put into serious danger--and the adult disregards the needs and interests of the child.

Reportedly, the father, Richard Heene, is a trained actor, and he wanted a job. So, in order to achieve his goal he knowingly endangered helicopter pilots, police, and many others involved in the search and rescue effort.

One of the most disturbing lessons for the Heene children is that they were made aware that their parents are capable of being less than truthful. Such a lesson might make the boys think that lying is acceptable. After all, many children learn to lie from their parents. "Don't tell your mother" is a common household phrase. Too often, if a child comes home from school and tells mom or dad that they lied, cheated, or hurt another child, the behavior is condoned. This kind of reaction helps the child avoid any pangs of conscience and feel comfortable with psychopathy and sociopathy. At least in the Heene family, the children did not learn that dishonesty pays off.

The Heene family saga also is a reminder of the devastating impact of greed. We have become a nation of cynics, because we expect everyone to cheat. This is expected to such an extent that illegal gains often are worked into the budget, because everyone assumes that someone is bending the rules.

Thirty years ago, I was on my way to New York City to see a show with my wife and 16-year-old son. We got a flat tire, and my son changed the tire while I held an umbrella over his head. The spare was a donut that said on it, "Do not go more than 50 miles on this tire."

So we drove into a Sunoco station to get the flat fixed. I ran into the station, fell, and broke a leg. Instead of going to New York City to see Amadeus, I went to the hospital to be operated on. Two weeks after the incident, I was at home and received a call from a lawyer for the Sun Oil Co. He asked me numerous questions about grease on the ground or my clothes, and I finally said in an exasperated tone: "I ran, 1 slipped, and I broke my leg. I am not suing you." There was a long silence, and he finally said, "Dr. Fink, this is the most unusual conversation I've had in 15 years of practicing law!" He had expected me to sue. But I saw no reason to sue the company, even though I, like everyone else, could have used the money. It just never occurred to me, and I hope that this lesson in honesty was not lost on my son.

The issue of greed is clearly a big part of the balloon boy case. The parents wanted to find an easy way to make money and get on TV. They used their child, who blew their scheme open with his remark about getting ready for a show.

This is reminiscent of cases in which parents exploit the children's good looks or talents. We were all appalled at clips of JonBenet Ramsey getting dressed up, and dancing and prancing to please her parents. A child exploited in this way might, in fact, learn to enjoy the attention and might learn to adapt his or her attitudes and responses to gain adulation.

Much the same can be said of Michael Jackson, whose father pushed him to become a professional performer as a young child. His talent apparently pleased his father, who Michael complained over the years deprived him of a normal boyhood. Generally, we have not thought of what happened in the Jackson family as abuse. However, I don't see the dynamics as that different. Why, for example, was it so important to immerse Michael and his brothers in show business and make Michael a star? We would all agree that Michael Jackson's father was probably motivated by money. We are back to greed.

If I see in my practice a family in which a child has been exploited for financial gain or some other utility, I try first to assess the degree of trauma in the child. …

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