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'Little Heroes of Medicine' Teach Experts to Treat Childhood Trauma

It's been a quarter of a century since a sensational story put three men behind bars--and a small California farming town on the map. The town: Chowchilla, California.

And even 25 years later, the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping incident leaves us baffled and amazed. For the children involved, the consequences have proven to be far worse: For them it was a case of innocence lost. And as John Blackstone has found, time hasn't completely healed their scars.

It was a bizarre and horrifying crime in California farm country, but the young survivors went on to make an important gift to the children of today.

"They became little heroes of medicine," says Lenore Terr.

What happened to the children of Chowchilla has guided the treatment of young victims of traumas from Oklahoma City to Columbine High School. Psychiatrist Lenore Terr was one of the first to learn from Chowchilla.

"It seems to me that this is kind of a watershed event, and one of the reasons it stuck in people's minds so much is that until then you really thought of schools as a safe place," says Terr. "Before that things were happening to children. But once you could see it across a group, you could see the nightmares, and you could see the terrible fears and you could see the personality changes."

Twenty-five years ago the ordeal began with a mystery.

As the CBS Evening news with Walter Cronkite reported, "There may never have been as anguishing a mystery. Twenty-six school children and their bus driver have vanished in California's San Joaquin Valley."

Nineteen girls, seven boys, and their driver taken at gunpoint by three kidnapers who planned to ransom them for $5 million.

Kids aged 5 to 14 taken from their school bus to a van buried underground. A hiding place that could easily have become a tomb for the children and their driver, Ed Ray. Ray is 80 now.

"That was the worst part--we was buried alive," says Ray.

"They pulled the ladder up and throwed us a roll of toilet paper, and that's the last we heard of 'em," says Ray.

Over the next hours Ed Ray and these tough farm kids dug their way out and escaped.

As Dan Rather reported on a later edition of the CBS Weekend News, "Chowchilla, California, a small farming community south of San Francisco tonight has its 26 missing schoolchildren and hero bus driver back."

Back then, it seemed the perfect happy ending. All the children returned home, apparently without a scratch.

"I've never been a movie star before," said Jennifer Brown.

Nine-year-old Brown even seemed as concerned about the kidnapers as herself.

After she escaped a reporter asked, "Why do you suppose they would do something like that?" Brown said, "I don't know. They didn't have enough love."

Terr says at the time, "There wasn't all that much known about childhood trauma."

In 1976, most people thought healthy kids would just get over it. Crisis counselors and psychologists did not rush tChowchilla. The kids were left largely on their own. Until months later when Dr. Lenore Terr came to see how they were doing. She found psychological wounds that had not been treated.

"Everybody hoped that the problems would go away, and hope doesn't always make it so," says Terr.

The school bus itself has been preserved. It's now sitting in this warehouse surrounded by old tractors and other relics of this agricultural area. Though this may now be a museum piece, the memories of what happened 25 years ago remain fresh and painful for those who were on board.

"You know, that's the first memory I have of my childhood," says survivor Larry Park, " But the memories are nasty . . . the memories hurt."

Park is 31 now and still can't escape the emotions unleashed when he was 6.

"Every year at this time I just get kind of weird," Park says--[in] the way that I rage and the way that I am hot-headed."

Park has had trouble with the law. Spent some time in pison. He's doing better now, he says, but still struggling.

"I will never get back the kid that I was. That kid stayed underground. And it was a different kid that came home. And I think that that happened for each and every one of us--a different child came home," says Park.

Terr says, "Some of these kids have become substance abusers. Some of these kids have had big struggles with depression. There are a number of these kids who have gone to prison for doing something controlling to somebody else."

Little Jennifer Brown was interviewed on the 16th anniversary of the kidnapping.

"Kids are supposed to adjust to things, but I still have not gotten over it. As a kid, I was scared of the dark. I was scared of strangers," said Brown. "Even now I still sleep with a nightlight, and I'm way into my 20s."

What we learned from the children of Chowchilla is that the young can suffer deep psychological wounds. Wounds that may not be so damaging if treated early.

So now, after a trauma like the Columbine shootings, the counselors come quickly.

"Those kids can be helped now because of the Chowchilla kids," says Terr. "These kids were heroes of medicine."

Heroes because they taught us even the youngest can carry invisible wounds.
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