Ask New York clinical psychologist Katherine Porterfield where Omar Khadr is on the continuum of rehabilitation, and she says he is far along it after 10 years in prison in Guantanamo Bay.
“What you’re looking for in a young person coming out of a war zone is, ‘Can they build relationships? Can they focus on a positive, healthful, contributing role in society and can they get past the trauma?’ ” says Porterfield, who has spent hundreds of hours in the past four years working with Khadr at the request of his defence team. “In terms of each of those issues, it is my opinion that Omar Khadr is very well positioned when he is allowed to rejoin Canadian society and begin to rebuild his life.”
Porterfield, who works as a senior clinician at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, will not specify Khadr’s particular psychological issues, but she says he has experienced “a range of traumas and stressors at a young age.”
Other reports have suggested that Khadr, who was captured in 2002 on an Afghanistan battlefield as an al-Qaeda combatant and later pleaded guilty to killing a U.S. soldier, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and that he may have also suffered abuse, torture and sexual abuse.
Those who work with other cases of child soldiers, especially those in African countries, outline a range of common issues, including serious trauma related to the exposure to violence and a lack of meaningful or soothing attachments. They also outline the perils of an individual trying to reintegrate into a community if that community is openly hostile to him. Can he become a successful member of society?
On the level of the individual, “we see problems with interpersonal relationships, anger problems, and deficits in those relationships and engaging in risky behaviours that don’t help them get any further or maximize their potential in life,” says Theresa Betancourt, an associate professor of child health and human rights at the Harvard School of Public Health who studies the postwar lives of child soldiers.
She says there is also a condition known as toxic stress, which stems from repeated stresses that take a physiological toll on the body.
In addition to treating those specific problems through cognitive, talk or group therapy, social workers and therapists fan out to work with families, find social supports and even educate communities about what the child soldier has been through before he or she returns. “Young people have the capacity to redirect their life trajectories toward something much more positive, even with horrendous trauma histories,” Betancourt says.
But experts point out that no matter how much progress a former child soldier makes in therapy, there are other often more powerful variables that will drive his success or failure upon re-entering society. One that may already be in play in Khadr’s case is stigma.
In her work on a long-term study of the reintegration of 500 children, most of them child soldiers, in Sierra Leone since 2002, Betancourt has measured the community reaction to returning child soldiers.
When the community is accepting, the former child soldier fares well and is less likely to reoffend.
When the community is accusatory, provokes the young person or saddles him with negative reactions, “it makes it much harder for a person with significant trauma history to reintegrate well,” says Betancourt, director of the Research Program on Children and Global Adversity.
This is especially true if a positive world view has been part of the therapeutic process, Porterfield says. “When a child has already been exposed to the darkest and, in some ways, ugliest parts of what people do to one another, one of the ways, in my experience, you work to heal and rebuild that young person’s sense of themselves in the world is you show them that the world is full of people who are interested in constructive work and positive relationships and not hateful beliefs.”
Samantha Nutt, the Toronto-based founder of War Child Canada and the author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid, says this is a huge part of her organization’s work in former war zones, such as the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. War Child runs community programs discussing the rights of children, talks to teachers and runs radio broadcasts on the topic, for instance.
“And yet here, Omar Khadr comes home and our own government is upping the ante in terms of the hyperbole,” Nutt says in the wake of statements from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews characterizing Khadr as radicalized, remorseless and still idealizing his al-Qaeda-linked father. “It’s interesting that some of the very same things we know and apply on an international level are not the same things that are being done here.”
Although Nutt adds that nothing can completely diminish the threat of recidivism – she has had face-to-face conversations with former child soldiers who say they have changed and who end up returning to militias – anti-stigma efforts are key.
Porterfield says she would like to talk to Toews and the Correctional Service of Canada about Khadr. “I’d very much look forward to sharing that perspective with them.”