The parents of a boy who was kidnapped at the age of 11 and sexually abused during 4½ years of captivity have a message of hope for the parents of Jaycee Dugard, the California woman who was allegedly held captive for 18 years by a man who raped her and fathered two children with her.
“Be patient with them. Love them unconditionally. Constantly reassure her, and her children, that none of this is her fault, that you still love them, that they’re not damaged goods,” Pam Akers told TODAY’s Natalie Morales Tuesday from St. Louis. “Over time, things can get better.”
In 2002, Shawn Hornbeck, son of Pam Akers and stepson of Craig Akers, was kidnapped near his home while riding his bike by Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizza-shop manager. Shawn was 11 — the same age Jaycee was when she was allegedly snatched by Phillip Garrido from in front of her house 18 years ago — and remained missing for the next 4½ years.
Three years ago, Devlin abducted another boy, and when police tracked that youth to Devlin’s St. Louis apartment, they discovered Shawn. The Akerses said that their son, who is now 18, is a normal young man and is proof that recovery even from the horrors of captivity and abuse is possible.
But, they said, it is not easy.
When Shawn came home, his parents were filled with the same questions the public had about his years of captivity. What had his captor done to him? Why hadn’t he tried to escape? How had he survived?
“It was very difficult,” Pam Akers told Morales. “Sean had a lot of guilt for not trying to get away. He thought we were going to be angry at him. He thought he was going to be damaged goods, we weren’t going to love him anymore, that we were going to blame him.”
With the help of excellent therapists, the Akerses resisted asking questions, knowing that Shawn would tell them what he needed to when he was ready. They also assured him that nothing that he did was his fault. He was reacting as humans naturally do to survive.
“We just had to reassure him that everything he did we felt he did right because he was still alive and was brought back to us,” his mother said. “We had to tell him that we didn’t blame him, there’s no reason to feel guilt, none of this was your fault.”
Walking on eggshells
Craig Akers said that Jaycee Dugard’s parents will have to show the same patience, not just with their daughter, but also with her two daughters, ages 11 and 15. Their transition is made more complicated by the fact that the girls didn’t know that their father is accused of kidnapping, raping and holding their mother captive for so many years.
“Initially, you walk pretty much on eggshells, because you’re afraid you’re going to say something wrong that’s going to bring back a memory or trigger something,” Craig Akers said. “You just have to be very slow, very deliberate. In this case, the mental health professionals are going to be key in getting this family back on the right track. You just have to let the victims know you love them unconditionally with no strings, that they didn’t do anything wrong. None of it is their fault. That’s probably the most important thing you can do.”
He also said that parents have to resist the urge to ask questions that their child isn’t ready to answer.
“You have to remember that all the questions that we have aren’t really the important thing in this situation,” Craig Akers said. “Us getting answers to our questions isn’t important. What’s important is getting these victims the help that they need to reunite them with their families and make them whole again.”
Michael Devlin, who held Shawn Hornbeck captive for four and a half years, is escorted out of a Missouri courthouse under heavy security in October 2007.
Image: Michael Devlin
Boys Found DevlinABoys Found DevlinUnionMOUSA1MOJR106PfalsefalseIn Shawn’s case, his mother said, he understood that his parents had questions, so he undertook to answer the most obvious ones himself.
“Within the first couple of weeks, Shawn told us a few things, only because he said he knew we had to have had thousands of questions and had to have been wondering what was going on,” Pam Akers said. “He did share a few things with us that he thought he could. But then after that it took a while in therapy for us to really get into details, to where he was able to share some of the more horrible things.”
Why don’t they escape?
Most people wonder why kidnap victims don’t try to run. The Akerses said you have to remember how young the victims were — and the terror they were subjected to.