Experts Explain Why MO Kidnapped Boy Didn’t Escape


How could young Missouri kidnapping victim Shawn Hornbeck ride his bike, surf the Internet, make phone calls, even go to a school dance, and not escape from Michael Devlin, the man accused of holding him hostage for more than four years? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked, “Why didn’t he just bolt when he was away from Devlin?”

Experts who have treated children and adults who have survived traumatic experiences, such as abuse, kidnapping and hostage situations, tried to explain. “I think most people would be surprised at what they might say or do to survive,” said Dr. John Rabun, a forensic psychiatrist and clinical instructor in psychiatry at Washington University. Some hostages experience a psychological phenomenon known as Stockholm syndrome, where they form a bond with their captors. For others, fear itself is enough to keep them shackled to their captors, even when there are no physical restraints. The bonding phenomenon is well known among people who negotiate with hostage-takers, and police who respond to domestic abuse calls. Often, battered spouses and hostages will stay when it seems they could leave, said Rabun. One kind of response is an unconscious reaction to fear, said psychiatrist Dr. C. Robert Cloninger, director of the Center for Well Being at Washington University. One way out of a fearful situation is to eliminate the division between captor and hostage by beginning to identify with the captor. “Once you’ve begun to identify with them, you don’t have to fear them anymore, because you’re in harmony with them,” he said. “If there’s any conflict, it’s not between you and the captor, it’s with the outside world.”


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