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How should caregivers help Israeli children who were freed from captivity?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israel and Hamas have extended their truce for another day, which means more Israeli hostages are exchanged for Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Among the hostages released by Hamas yesterday was 18-year-old Ofir Engel. On October 7, he was with his girlfriend and her family at a kibbutz when it was attacked by Hamas and he was taken away. Last month, I visited the teenager's family home in Israel, and his parents, Yoav and Sharon Engel, told me at the time that they were determined to secure Ofir's return.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

YOAV ENGEL: I don't want to say nothing about how to do it and what price did we need to pay for them. Bring them home now. That's all. And if not, we don't have country.

INSKEEP: I think you're saying if Israel cannot protect my family, what's the point of Israel? Is that what you're saying?

Y ENGEL: Yes.

SHARON ENGEL: Yes.

Y ENGEL: Yes.

INSKEEP: Now we know that Ofir has been released. And his aunt, Yael Engel Lichi, sent us a voice memo.

YAEL ENGEL LICHI: The day finally came, and he's released today. We saw him on TV, and he's on Israeli land right now. We are so happy and relieved.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When children are freed following the trauma of captivity, they need a very specific sort of care. The words and even physical gestures their caregivers use can have a big impact in those first moments and for the days and weeks following. Anticipating the current hostage release, Israel's Health Ministry commissioned child trauma specialists at Jerusalem's Haruv Institute to compile a handbook for Israeli soldiers, health workers and others on how to interact with the child hostages released by Hamas. One of the authors is Ayelet Noam-Rosenthal. She's a social worker specializing in early childhood trauma at Haruv Institute, and she joins us now. Good morning.

AYELET NOAM-ROSENTHAL: Good morning.

FADEL: So I want to start with asking you what you've told the families of the hostages to expect as their children are returned to them.

NOAM-ROSENTHAL: Well, that's a very good question. Let me start off by saying that here in Israel, after the horrific events of October 7, where children were kidnapped after witnessing massacre and severe violence, we actually understood that we have to focus also on the day after.

FADEL: Yeah.

NOAM-ROSENTHAL: That means the day after they return and address both their immediate and long-term needs. And one of the things we told the family members, first of all, is that they can't make mistakes. I mean, they are allowed to make mistakes. They can fix everything, but they have to understand. They need to give the child his autonomy back because captivity takes the autonomy of the child. And even though we want to immediately hug him and embrace him, we have to give him his own pace.

FADEL: So how do you do that? I mean, how can families try to provide their child with a sense of normalcy and routine again, while also being sensitive to this process that they've got to go through?

NOAM-ROSENTHAL: So as you mentioned earlier, we formulated a blueprint on how to treat the kidnapped children also upon their return. But also we develop training programs - by the way, not only for parents, also for the professionals, the social workers, the pediatrician, the nurses, the teachers, everyone that will meet the child. And the principle is that all professionals and parents should - it should be like one child, one system. That's the driven - that's what is driving our work. I mean, sadly, these children were not protected on October 7, and now it's time to put all egos aside of all the workers and to - and in full coordination, both of the military, the health and social services as one system driven for the same goal, the child's welfare and well-being. And what we want to do in the first stage, and we also say to the parents, is to do no harm. That means that we must be very careful not to add an additional trauma to the child's horrific experiences. We must all work together to strengthen the child resilience and work towards his or her adjustment to the new circumstances. And the first thing we need to do is to build trust, because that's one of the things these children lost along the way.

FADEL: I want to play you a part of an interview my colleague Mary Louise Kelly had with Elizabeth Hirsh Naftali, whose great-niece, 4-year-old Abigail Edan, was returned to her family. Here's some of what Naftali told NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELIZABETH HIRSH NAFTALI: I think that we will only learn as the days go on, and for a long time, what really effectively will be the results of having been a hostage and having been in her father's arms when he was murdered.

FADEL: How would you advise Abigail's family on how to talk with her about the specifics of what she went through?

NOAM-ROSENTHAL: Well, this is a very complex case of early childhood trauma. What Abigail Edan went through is also the loss of an attachment figure.

FADEL: Yeah.

NOAM-ROSENTHAL: And of course, she was exposed to horrific traumatic events. And one of the things we want to do is to formulate a narrative, but we want to also be very flexible. And we must ensure, first of all, that she is with a new attachment figure and that she feels safe now. That's the first message we want to give Abigail. Now you're safe. You're in Israel. Your aunt and uncle are looking after you. And then the next six month or one year will be addressing the narrative of the events happening, while making sure that she is safe today, that no one is going to leave her, that we are all going to take care of her.

FADEL: Ayelet Noam-Rosenthal is a social worker at Haruv Institute in Jerusalem. Thank you so much for your time.

NOAM-ROSENTHAL: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.