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Don't press for full story, expert says

As a community, Utahns prayed for Elizabeth Smart and searched under bushes and down ravines. She became, to a degree, "everybody's child."

With her safe return, people feel entitled to know the details of her past nine months.

They're not.

That's according to Julie Bradshaw, director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Families at Primary Children's Medical Center, who said the community needs to back off and let the child and her family work through things.

Experts fear that media attention and competition to tell the story and other pressures to learn what happened will skew the pace.

"If we really care about her, we care about her well-being. She needs privacy to heal, to learn how to go back to her family, her life, to figure out what happened to her. And I'm speculating, because I don't know her story, but she needs time, a lot of time. It's not our business, it's hers," Bradshaw said.

"Children who are traumatized need to integrate very difficult experiences into their life, whether it's a car accident, losing a parent, child abuse, a horrible illness, whatever. And we found in our experience that children need to talk about their experiences at their own pace.

"When parents or the system push them too fast, they do all kinds of things to stop the story from coming out. I think what we've learned from helping hundreds of children is to let them tell the story how they want to tell the story."

Bradshaw spoke about children in traumatic situations, but addressed the Smart case only in very general terms.

Counselors use different techniques to help children tell a traumatic story, depending on the child's age. With a 5-year-old, it's more art and toys. With a 15-year-old, it's more language. "But that doesn't mean we can speed up the process."

The other very real fear when a community has been so caught up in a story, she said, is that if it doesn't get answers as fast as it wants, that community will turn on her.

"I'm already hearing speculation. People need to have some understanding. Think about the adult women who live with cruel men for years and years and years and can't figure out a way to get away. There's a psychology of power that we don't understand unless we've been there.

"I'm already hearing weird rumors and they're just crap. I'm afraid they're going to turn on her if the story doesn't unfold at the pace that everyone wants. That would be very, very wrong."