International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Treating Families of Kidnap Victims

Posted 1 April 1997 in StressPoints by Spiwak Frida, PhD, Elana Newman, PhD, Fuentes Adolfo, PhD, and Espinel Zelde, MD

Columbia accounts for 70 percent of the world's kidnappings. Kidnapping has become a commercial enterprise among common criminals and guerrillas alike to target both the rich and the poor. Although the goal of the kidnappings is primarily economic (e.g., to acquire ransom), the collective result is one of cultural enslavement.

There are generally two types of kidnapers: (1) guerrillas and (2) "common" criminals. The guerillas are patient with their victims and hold them in remote rural areas for long periods of time (between six months and a year) before the ransom is finally negotiated. Common criminals, who are usually less experienced, more impetuous and have a poorer infrastructure, can only keep prisoners for short periods of time within city limits. In these cases, if demands are not met, the victim will be readily murdered. Although most hostages are returned, approximately five percent are indeed murdered.

The Columbian government created the Presidential Program for the Defense of Personal Liberty in September 1995 to help the families of victims of kidnappings, extortion and disappearance. This victim assistance program is designed to offer immediate psychological assistance and crisis intervention throughout the abduction period and during potential reunification. The Presidential Program staff helps the family interface with all the systems involved in investigating and recovering the hostages, and if necessary, during negotiation. There are currently 18 psychologists working at 23 sites across the country.

Given the rampant corruption and the fact that 75 percent of the captors are not prosecuted, Columbian families are mistrustful of government institutions. In addition, the stress endured during this period taxes the psychological and economic resources of all family members. To be effective, the program uses a variety of innovative outreach strategies, which acknowledge the reality of the families' mistrust and current family upheaval. Rather than insist that clients attent regular sessions at the centers, the psychologists see family members at their convenience, wherever they wish to meet. Sessions may be held at clients' business offices, at home during meals or while these families run daily errands. Sessions can range from two to six hours, depending on the family's needs and can include one to 10 family members.

All services are aimed at helping the family maintain its cohesion and attain its highest possible level of functioning. Social support, stress management and problem-solving are primary interventions. In addition, staff educate families about traumatic response and attempt to foster adaptive coping mechanisms among all family members. Although staff usually meet all the family members during the initial sessions, typically one or two self-selected family leaders are provided continuous help, and they in turn provide provide psychological assistance and communication to the rest of the family. The program prides itself on providing accessible services to these families in a flexible manner. Current efforts are under way to substantially assess our clients' needs.