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So Many Professional Opinions in the Battle for Custody of Elian

Competing psychological assessments raise questions about the therapists' ethics and motivations.


He's a normal 6-year-old who belongs with his sole surviving parent. He's a grieving child who loves his cousin like a mother. He misses his home environment. He loves his new environment. He has undergone unimaginable trauma. He's resilient; he'll get over it.

From a four-person panel assembled by the government to at least half a dozen specialists recruited by his Miami relatives, a profusion of professionals has weighed in on the mental health of Elian Gonzalez. Depending on which faction has the floor, almost any of the above can describe the little boy who has come to symbolize the animosity between Cuba and the United States.

Political differences account for some of the divergent assessments, which will play an important role in the appellate court arguments over Elian set for Thursday in Atlanta. But so does the subjectivity that members of the profession concede is part of a standard evaluation process used on children. Since Elian has undergone a series of these evaluations, some in the field fear he may become overanalyzed. Still others express concern that all the clamor puts their profession in a bad light.

"Dueling shrinks," said Dr. Eugenio Rothe, director of the child psychiatry clinic at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. "It's very embarrassing."

For example, Dr. Paulina Kernberg, an eminent child psychiatrist who examined Elian while consulting for the government, reported that the boy drew a picture of a man on a mountain and told her the image was "Daddy looking around." Kernberg said the sketch revealed the child's "admiration and pride" for his father.

Miami child psychiatrist Dr. Lydia Usategui, engaged to examine the boy by the lawyer for Elian's Miami relatives, was unimpressed.

"So he drew his father on a mountain," she said in an interview. "Big deal."

Kernberg's evaluation is included in the government's case. Spencer Eig, an attorney representing the Miami relatives, said that along with statements from specialists who have seen the boy, an affidavit from a psychologist who has worked with politically prominent children in Cuba will be "a really key part of this case."

The appellate court is considering a request from Elian's father to dismiss the Miami relatives' appeal of the custody ruling in favor of Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

Starting with counselors at the Florida hospital where he was examined after his Thanksgiving Day rescue, the public and private psychological assessment of Elian Gonzalez has relentlessly continued. Only a handful of those who have voiced their opinions actually have seen the boy, but many others have chimed in.

Lawyers from each side "are recruiting professionals who they know are going to sympathize with their view," said Rothe, who has not been involved in the case. "Many times, when the professional doesn't give the report they want, the report gets buried. Or they go through several evaluations until they get the one they want to bring to court."

Is Analysis of the Boy or the Situation?

As executive director of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Joe M. Sanders Jr. cautioned that "psychological evaluations aren't hard science." The inherent subjectivity of the process, he said, means that some specialists may be analyzing the situation, not the individual.

Sanders also objected to remarks by professionals who have not examined Elian. "Unless you have the opportunity to get firsthand information, how can people make profound statements one way or the other?"

In a 62-page booklet put together by a group of mental health specialists in Cuba, for instance, psychologist Aurora Garcia Morey said she could tell from news footage that for Elian, "affective links are being lost and replaced by things."

About two weeks after Elian arrived in Florida, Eig asked Usategui to evaluate Elian. Her report, urging that the child remain with the Miami relatives, is included in court papers.

Usategui, who has since seen Elian several times, said the child's treating psychologist, Alina Lopez-Gottardi, "has been seeing him for months." (As a treating psychologist whose report on Elian is also included in the court report, Lopez-Gottardi declined to comment.) In all, Usategui said, "six or seven" mental health professionals saw Elian in Miami--including Dr. H. Gunther Perdigao, a New Orleans psychiatrist who, with the family's consent, spent several hours with Elian while taping a "Good Morning America" segment.

"This was not a boy who was not attended to. He was seen. He was evaluated in every sense," said Usategui, who was not paid for her services. Numerous professionals arrived at the same opinion, she said: that Elian should not be abruptly removed from his relatives' home. "That's why I'm so upset about this whole situation."

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