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Cheryl Paradis, Psy.D.
Cheryl Paradis Psy.D.

A Family Held Hostage For More Than 10 Years

How Could A Man Keep His Family Isolated for Years?

How could seven children be kept secluded from the outside world for more than ten years? It appears that this recently occurred in Madison Township, Ohio. It was reported that forty-seven-year-old Jeffrey York held his family as hostages or prisoners in their own home. It was alleged that he mentally and physically abused his wife and seven children and raped one or two of his daughters.

The children, two boys and five girls, ranged in age from nineteen to three months. The children were "home-schooled" and prevented from having outside friendships. Jeffrey York always took one of the children with him whenever he left the home to prevent anyone else in the family from leaving. Madison Township Detective Dan Boerner described how one girl was treated: "Imagine an 8 by 10 bedroom being cut down into thirds with two-thirds being storage, one-third made available for living space. This went on for a year where this child was locked in the room, periodically let out to use the restroom, but in general, meals were brought to this child."…

In December, 2009, after more than ten years of this horrific treatment, Mr. York's wife Danita called 911 to report the rape of her daughter. Madison Township Police Chief Len Del Calzo is quoted by ABC News as saying, "We went down there. She met us pretty much at the door, her and the children and we removed them from the home."…

Does this case seem familiar? Mr. York has been referred to as the "American Fritzl." In April 2008, Elisabeth Fritzl reported to the authorities that she had been imprisoned and sexually assaulted by her father, Josef Fritzl, for twenty-four years. She gave birth to seven children, one of whom died as an infant. She and three of her children had been kept in a concealed area of the basement of the family house. These children were ages nineteen, eighteen and five. Even more bizarre was that her other three children lived upstairs with her father and mother. These children were presented to the community as foundlings that Elisabeth's mother and father discovered abandoned near their home.

Elizabeth Fritzl managed to notify the authorities when her nineteen-year-old daughter required medical treatment and Mr. Fritzl permitted her to be taken to the hospital. If not for this illness it was possible that the family's nightmare could have continued for years. Mr. Fritzl was convicted after a four-day trial and was sentenced to life in prison.

Will Jeffrey York also receive a severe sentence? On September 3rd a grand jury indicted him on nineteen counts of rape involving a female under the age of thirteen, gross sexual imposition and child endangerment. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Of course, he is innocent until proven guilty and it is possible that the press has not accurately reported the facts of the case.

How will Danita York be treated by the legal system? Prosecutors have a good deal of latitude and decide whether or not to press charges on a case by case basis. Joel Steinberg's partner Hedda Nussbaumn, for example, was not charged in the beating death of their adopted daughter Lisa. Ms. Nussbaumn's picture was clear eveidence of the years of physical abuse she had endured. Chief Del Calzo said that Mrs. York is not being charged with any crime.

In my work as a forensic psychologist I have evaluated many women charged with manslaughter or endangering the welfare of their children when they did not protect them from their abusive fathers. In almost all of these cases the women described how they had been physically, emotionally or sexually abused. All told me that their husbands or boyfriends isolated them from their families and threatened to hurt or kill them if they informed anyone about the abuse they and their children endured. Some believed their children would be killed if they reported anything to the authorities. In many cases I concluded that these women were suffering with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or Battered Woman's Syndrome.

Battered Woman's Syndrome is considered a syndrome or a cluster of anxiety and depressive symptoms resulting from exposure to ongoing, severe abuse by a spouse or partner. Women with Battered Woman's Syndrome often experience distorted thinking. They may believe the abuse is their fault or the abuser is all knowing and all powerful. They often feel what the famous social psychologist researcher Martin Seligman called "learned helplessness." Women with Battered Woman's Syndrome typically experience fear, anger, depression, and flashbacks. Their many become "frozen" and unable to plan or carry out an escape.

The nightmarish conditions these defendants described to me were similar in many ways to Danita York's life. Detective Dan Boerner reported, "The family appears to have been cut off from the world completely. They had no real support system and no way for the mother to leave."

We need to be careful about assuming that Jeffrey York is guilty of these charges. But if the press reports turn out to be accurate, this case will raise many troubling questions about how an abusive man could exert such control over his wife and children. People who read about this case may find it difficult to understand why Danita York did not escape or intervene to save her children. Most of us can not imagine behaving as she did. I expect we will learn a great deal about the traumas she and her children endured during her husband's trial.

About the Author
Cheryl Paradis, Psy.D.

Cheryl Paradis, Psy.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College.

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