[Romania] Stockholm Syndrome and How We Identify Abuse (Case discussion study)

05 May 2020

Case history

Mr. H is a 41-year-old man from Egypt. He is accompanied by his 15-year-old daughter M. The two have requested a form of protection in Romania, stating that their family has been discriminated against in their country of origin. The father also states that his wife, along with 2 younger children, who are 10 and 8 years old respectively, remained in Egypt. He is worried about their fate and wants to bring them to Romania as well.

Currently, the father and his daughter live in an accommodation and procedures centre for asylum seekers. From a legal point of view, the two have been rejected in the administrative stage of the asylum procedure and are waiting for a new term in court.


Description of abuse

Since arriving at the centre, Mr. H has come into conflict with the immigration staff, with the staff of the NGOs that carry out activities in the centre and with other asylum seekers. The reasons were various, but the most common were his dissatisfaction with the living conditions, which he considered precarious (dirty, lack of privacy, noisy, the rules of the centre too strict, etc.), dissatisfaction with state aid and the facilities offered by Immigration and NGOs (insufficient food allowance, non-payment of the state allowance for children, lack of help in finding a job, lack of legal, social or psycho-medical assistance, etc.). Also, Mr. H has entered into numerous conflicts with other asylum seekers whom he frequently accuses of intentionally sexually harassing his daughter.

Shortly after the installation of the two in the centre, the father’s inappropriate attitude towards his daughter became apparent. It was discovered that Mr. H keeps her locked in the room most of the time, limits her contact with children and young people of her age, and he rarely (after much insistence from the organizers) allows her to participate in organized activities for children in the centre or outside it. Also, the neighbours reported that they witnessed both Mr. H and M coming out of the shower dressed in very little. These incidents have been described as "indecent", "provocative, immoral" or at best "inappropriate" for a father-daughter relationship. Also, no situations were observed and reported in which the girl asked for help or seemed frightened by the violent behaviour of the father.

M was not allowed to attend school because she does not yet know Romanian and "needs time" to adapt to new living conditions. Her father has justified himself saying that it is the girl's choice to spend time in the room, that she does not want to be with other children, and that she wants to keep in touch with friends in Egypt by phone.

Institutionalized psycho-social intervention

  • Administration at the centre (Immigration staff) found that the two fell into a vulnerable category (single-parent family), with all the rights thereof.
  • The family was kept under observation, and when the situation of abuse became obvious, the management of the accommodation centre notified child protection services.
  • The administration of the centre, through its employees, warned Mr. H several times to stop hid aggressive and conflictual behaviour.
  • Immigration officers advised the father to allow his daughter to attend school. He was also informed that the detention of a child at home is a crime that can be punished by law.
  • DGASPC conducted a social survey at the accommodation centre. The father and the girl were interviewed. They presented a normal situation, without incident. The investigation team found no problem, and concluded that the child is well cared for; the father constantly and closely fulfils the needs of the child.

Intervention by NGOs

  • Immigration, in collaboration with an NGO, enrolled M in school (in the 8th grade according to her age), as well as in Romanian language courses. The girl never attended these courses.
  • The NGOs provided psychological assistance to the father and daughter. The two were included in the projects carried out at that time and benefited from legal counselling, psychological counselling (the father benefited from several meetings, the daughter did not want/was not allowed to participate ). Although he benefited from social counselling to obtain the state allowance for his child, the father did not wish to cooperate in this process; he refused to file a copy of the girl's birth certificate even though he was in possession of it.
  • M was repeatedly invited to organized educational-recreational activities and her father was advised about the importance of these activities specific to the girl's age. M sporadically participated in these activities showing disinterest and eagerness to finish early and return to her room.


References / questions

Questions for participants

  1. Is this a case of gender-based violence against children/young people? If so, what forms of violence were identified? Arguments.
  2. How would you evaluate the intervention of the institutions and NGOs that worked on this case?

- Did the interventions achieve their goal?

- What else do you think could have been done?

  1. How was the principle of the best interests of the child respected in this case?
  2. What do you think are the psychological (Stockholm syndrome?), educational and social consequences for M in the short and long term?


Essential information for care professionals

Differences between physical abuse and discipline

In physical abuse, unlike physical forms of discipline, the following elements are present:

  • Unpredictability:
    • The child never knows what is going to set the parent/caregiver off. There are no clear boundaries or rules.
    • The child constantly lives in fear and is never sure what behaviour will trigger a physical assault.
    • Physically abusive parents/caregiver act out of anger and the desire to assert control, not the motivation to lovingly teach the child.
    • The angrier the parent/caregiver, the more intense the abuse.
  • Using fear to control behaviour
    • Parents/caregivers who are physically abusive may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave, so they use physical abuse to ‘keep their child in line’. However, what children are really learning is how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals


Child emotional abuse

• Emotional abuse means the persistent emotional ill-treatment of a child so as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.

• It can include seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another.

• It can involve:

  • Conveying to children that they are worthless, unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person
  • Age or developmentally inappropriate expectations
  • Causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger
  • Exploitation or corruption of children.


Child sexual abuse

• Forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. This may include physical contact, or involving children in looking at or in the production of sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (Child Protection Regulations and Law of the Child Act).

• It is one of the forms of maltreatment that must be reported by designated professionals such as social welfare officers who are mandated by the Law of the Child Act to deal with child protection issues.

• The dynamics of child sexual abuse differ from those of adult sexual abuse. In particular, children rarely disclose sexual abuse immediately after the event. Moreover, disclosure tends to be a process rather than a single episode and is often initiated following a physical complaint or a change in behaviour.

• Definitive signs of genital trauma are seldom seen in cases of child sexual abuse. The accurate interpretation of genital findings in children requires specialist training and, wherever possible, experts in this field should be consulted.


Child neglect

• Child neglect refers to failure by the parent/caregiver to provide needed age-appropriate care although they are financially able to do so, or have been offered financial or other means to do so.

• Neglect is the failure of a parent or other person legally responsible for the child’s welfare to provide for a child's basic needs, including providing adequate food, clothing, hygiene, and supervision.

• Child neglect can occur in the following parental/caregiver conditions/situations:

  • Physical inability to care for a child such as an adult with a serious injury
  • Mental inability to care for a child such as an adult with untreated depression or anxiety
  • Alcohol or drug abuse that results in the adult’s serious impairment of judgment and the ability to keep a child safe
  • Lack of knowledge of basic care needs of children at different developmental ages
  • Lack of knowledge that emotional nurturing is an essential need of children
  • Poverty/insufficient funds


• Neglect may be physical, for example:

  • Failure to provide necessary food or shelter
  • Lack of appropriate supervision
  • Abandonment (i.e., children who were left by their parents/guardians without information and were not claimed).

• Neglect may be medical, for example:

  • Failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment
  • Refusal of health care for a child
  • Delay in seeking/providing health care for a child
  • Prenatal exposure to neglect.

• Neglect may be educational, for example:

  • Failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs.

• Neglect may be emotional, for example:

  • Inattention to a child's emotional needs
  • Failure to provide psychological care
  • Permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs


What is Stockholm syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response. It occurs when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers. This psychological connection develops over the course of the days, weeks, months, or even years of captivity or abuse.

With this syndrome, hostages or abuse victims may come to sympathize with their captives. This is the opposite of the fear, terror, and disdain that might be expected from victims in these situations.

Over the course of time, some victims do come to develop positive feelings toward their captors. They may even begin to feel as if they share common goals and causes. The victim may begin to develop negative feelings towards the police or authorities. They may resent anyone who may be trying to help them escape from the dangerous situation they’re in.

This paradox does not happen with every hostage or victim, and it’s unclear why it occurs when it does.

Many psychologists and medical professionals consider Stockholm syndrome a coping mechanism, or a way to help victims handle the trauma of a terrifying situation​. Indeed, the history of the syndrome may help explain why that is.

Symptoms of Stockholm syndrome

  1. The victim develops positive feelings toward the person holding them captive or abusing them.
  2. The victim develops negative feelings toward police, authority figures, or anyone who might be trying to help them get away from their captor. They may even refuse to cooperate against their captor.
  3. The victim begins to perceive their captor’s humanity and believes they have the same goals and values.

These feelings typically happen because of the emotional and highly-charged situation that occurs during a hostage situation or abuse cycle.

For example, people who are kidnapped or taken hostage often feel threatened by their captor, but they are also highly reliant on them for survival. If the kidnapper or abuser shows them some kindness, they may begin to feel positive feelings toward their captor for this ‘compassion’.

Over time, that perception begins to reshape and skew how they view the person keeping them hostage or abusing them.


Stockholm syndrome may also arise in these situations:

  • Abusive relationships.​​ Research has shown that abused individuals may develop emotional attachments to their abuser.​​ Sexual​, physical, and ​​emotional abuse​, as well as incest, can last for years. Over this time, a person may develop positive feelings or sympathy for the person abusing them.
  • Child abuse. ​Abusers frequently threaten their victims with harm, even death. Victims may try to avoid upsetting their abuser by being compliant. Abusers may also show kindness that could be perceived as a genuine feeling. This may further confuse the child and cause them not to understand the negative nature ​of the relationship.
  • Sex trafficking trade. ​Individuals who are trafficked often rely on their abusers for necessities, like food and water. When the abusers provide that, the victim may begin to develop positive feelings  ​towards their abuser. They may also resist cooperating with police for fear of retaliation or because they think they must protect their abusers to protect themselves.
  • Sports coaching.​ Being involved in sports is a great way for people to build skills and relationships. Unfortunately, some of those relationships may ultimately be negative. Harsh coaching techniques can even become abusive. The athlete may tell themselves that their coach’s behaviour is for their own good, and this, according to a​​ 2018 study​, can ultimately become a form of Stockholm syndrome.


About the authors 

Elena Pătrățeanu is a coordinating social counsellor at the ICAR Foundation, an organization that provides medical, social, psychological and integration services to asylum seekers and refugees in Romania. Elena has a bachelor's degree in communication, a master's degree in Islamic studies and more than 6 years of experience working with vulnerable groups, such as survivors of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and sexual and gender-based violence. She is also a trainer, certified by the Romanian National Qualifications Authority and has been involved in providing training to public authorities and NGOs on topics such as working methods with refugees, identifying refugee vulnerabilities, social rights of asylum seekers, social assistance models in working with migrants, etc. In 2016, Elena was selected as a Professional Fellow for the US State Department Professional Fellows On-Demand Program for NGO leaders working with refugee communities in Europe.

Within the ICAR Foundation, she has worked with asylum seekers, refugees, third-country nationals and undocumented migrants, gaining valuable experience working for and with migrants, implementing social counselling and assistance models that involve clients directly, and by focusing on their active participation and feedback to promote customer integration and well-being.

Anca Bucur is a trainer, psychologist and psychotherapist. She has worked for more than a decade at the ICAR Foundation in the field of rehabilitation of victims of torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment. She has completed courses and trainings in Romania and abroad, specializing in the field of trauma psychotherapy. Anca is a trainer accredited by the National Authority for Qualifications, and in this capacity, is experienced in supporting specialization and adult training courses, as well as in their didactic design. She has been involved in numerous European course development projects dedicated to specialists who work in the field of migration and who deal with severely traumatized people. She also gained a wealth of experience working as a school psychologist, and is well versed in the psychological characteristics, interests, and concerns of children and young people. She is familiar with interactive learning methods, methods of activating and motivating working groups appropriate to the proposed purpose.

This case discussion study has been published within the regional project 'Building Relationships through Innovative Development of Gender-Based Violence Awareness in Europe - BRIDGE'.

The BRIDGE project is implemented under the lead of the Terre des hommes Regional Office for Europe together with partners from Belgium (Defense for Children International DCI-Belgium and FEDASIL), Greece (ARSIS), Malta (Kopin) and Romania (Tdh Romania), and has the general objective to strengthen the statutory response to GBV affecting children and young people on the move in EU countries. 




The BRIDGE project is supported by the European Union’s Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme (2014–2020).

The content of this case discussion study represents the views of the author only and is his/her sole responsibility. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.


Series this is part of: 
TDH program this relates to:  Child migration

This project is funded by: