Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kaine Horman Files for Divorce

Kaine Horman has filed for divorce from his wife, Terri, moved out of the house with the couple's toddler daughter, and obtained a restraining order against Terri Horman.  Kaine is the father of Kyron Horman, the second grader who disappeared from his elementary school in Portland, Oregon on June 4.  Terri was the last person to see him, walking away from her towards his classroom that morning.  She has been the focus of intense speculation in the blogosphere after reports that her cell phone records do not match her account of where she was that day.

If you Google this case, you can find numerous blog posts speculating on why the Hormans are splitting up.  Just about everyone with an Internet connection seems to have an opinion, and most of them believe that Kaine knows something about Terri's role in Kyron's disappearance.  Terri was already an Internet villain, and became one early in the case after she posted to her Facebook page that she was "hitting the gym" in the days following Kyron's disappearance.

For the record, I have absolutely no idea whether Terri Horman knows anything the general public doesn't about Kyron's disappearance.  I watch the same cop shows on TV that everyone else does, and I know that when a child disappears there's a good chance someone close to them is involved.  If this were a Law & Order episode, my money would be on the stepmother.  But it's not a Law & Order episode, and all I can assume from Kaine Horman filing for divorce is that the Hormans don't have a particularly happy marriage, at least not right now.

Putting to the side the question of whether Terri Horman is involved in Kyron's disappearance, the Horman's marriage breaking up shines a spotlight on a real issue for families that are experiencing or have experienced traumatic stress.  There is a popular notion that crises bring families closer together.  In fact, the stress of crises put tremendous stress on family relationships.  Marital trouble following a traumatic event is quite common, and the fact that most people think otherwise only serves to make people feel guilty about the troubles they are having.

At the end of every single Critical Incident Stress Management intervention, there is some form of education provided about typical reactions to stress and what people can do to mitigate their reactions.  One of the standard things we tell people is not to make any major, life-changing decisions while they are in the acute aftermath of an event.  It's not at all uncommon for people to say, at moments like this, that they are going to quit their job or move or leave their spouse.  We caution them not to do anything they can't undo, because they may feel differently when the dust settles.

With that advice in mind, I cringed a little when I saw that Kaine Horman had filed for divorce.  It is possible that the Hormans were having difficulties long before this, of course.  It is also possible that Kaine knows something we don't know about Terri and Kyron.  My worry is that neither of those things is true, but the last three weeks have been incredibly difficult and, in a situation that feels out of control, Kaine Horman is exerting control over one thing he can -- his marriage.  If so, I hope he'll hold off a little longer, until they find Kyron or until the main investigation goes cold.  There's no sense in doing something he can't undo.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

In Central Park, the Sky Really Is Falling

Yesterday afternoon, a branch fell off a tree just outside the seal lion exhibit at the Central Park Zoo in New York.  It was not windy or raining, and no one really knows why it fell.  About thirty feet below, Gianna Ricciutti, aged six months, was having her picture taken by her father, Mike, while being held by her mother, Karla Del Gallo. It was part of a visit from their home in New Jersey.  The branch hit Gianna and her mother, leaving Gianna dead and Karla in critical condition.

This is the sort of story that makes you gasp and exclaim how awful it is.  The sheer randomness of this event, coupled with the death of a tiny child, seems especially horrible.  As we start to think about it, we wonder why it doesn't happen more often.  After all, parks are full of tall trees, and branches fall off trees, so it was just a matter of time, we suppose, before this happened. And if it happened once, it can happen again.

If that's how we feel, imagine what it would be like to be just outside sea lion exhibit at the Central Park Zoo and suddenly hear a loud noise and see a woman and her baby crushed by a falling tree limb.  Gianna's father witnessed his baby's death and his wife's serious injury, completely powerless to stop it.  There were certainly others, perhaps not as focused on that particular pair, who saw the accident or arrived shortly thereafter. 

A security guard at the scene was interviewed by the New York Times.  The Times reports his experience as,

he heard a loud crack, like a thunderclap, and saw the branch plummet. After the mother fell, members of her family shrieked, the guard said, and her husband began screaming and jumping around. “He was going crazy,” the guard said.
The phrase "going crazy" really bothers me in this context.  First of all, what, exactly, is our expectation for rational behavior when you have just seen two of the most important people in your life critically injured in a freak accident?  How do we expect this man to act under the circumstances?  Is screaming and jumping around really that odd?

The second problem I have with this description is that the number one thing I talk to people who have been traumatized about is the sense they have that they are going crazy.  I would say that at least 80% of what I do is assure people that there reactions are typical and understandable.  They are not crazy, the situation is.  Behavior and reactions that would be totally bizarre on a regular day or in reaction to regular stress make total sense when the world has turned upside down.

At the same time, I can't blame the guard too much.  He just witnessed something awful as well, and frankly I wish the press wasn't so eager to get quotes from people in situations like this.  I doubt very much that the security guard actually thinks Mike Ricciutti's reaction was so out of whack.  He was describing the scene, and he used a turn of phrase that was unfortunate.  Under the circumstances, I can more than forgive him.

I really hope everyone who was in that part of the park yesterday gets some support.  It's going to be hard to walk under trees for a while, not because trees really are, statistically, all that dangerous, but because they seem that way.  I also hope all of those people have a chance to talk to each other at some point.  They need to know they aren't crazy, that this really was awful, and that the others around them didn't think their reaction was nuts.  It's easy, at moments like this, to feel like you're the only one reacting the way you are.  It might help them to know that others are gasping and exclaiming how awful it is, too.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mr. Feinberg Goes to Louisiana -- And Shows Us How Crisis Communication Should Be Done

Kenneth Feinberg got a new job last week.  He is administering the $20 billion fund that BP is setting up to compensate people affected by the oil gusher, now entering its third month of spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  You may remember Feinberg as the person in charge of a compensation fund for families of those killed in the 9-11 attacks as well.  Yesterday, he made his first trip to Louisiana for a series of town hall meetings to hear and answer questions from residents.

NPR ran a story yesterday with sound bites from one of these meetings, and it immediately became clear why Feinberg is an excellent choice for this job.  Not only has he done this kind of work before, but he seems to understand that the job is not just deciding who gets money and cuts checks.  It is also to acknowledge and try to assist with the level of stress that the people asking for compensation are under, because if he doesn't do that then the financial side of things will be infinitely more difficult.

The story had some masterful examples of Feinberg speaking to locals who were very upset.  One fisherman asked how Feinberg could presume to put a price on his life's work, which is now impossible due to the spill.  Your average bureaucratic answer would be something like, "We will be compensating you for any lost income."  But Feinberg actually acknowledged the question as it was asked:

I can't give you that decades of work and sweat that you put into your business. All I can do is sit with you and try and give you the one thing I can give you: compensation.
In other words, Feinberg was willing to utter the unimaginable.  He was asked whether he could do something, and he acknowledged that he can't.

People in charge, during a crisis, have to sound authoritative.  The last thing anyone wants to do is get up in front of a bunch of scared and angry people and sound like you haven't a clue what you're doing.  This only makes matters worse.  The two big mistakes that a lot of leaders make in this situation, however, are trying to be authoritative about something they actually don't know anything about, or only talking about the thing that they are knowledgeable about when people want to talk about something else.  There is an art, however, to acknowledging what you don't know while still sounding very competent about what you do know.  Feinberg seems to have this down.

Why is this important?  Because if you try to sound knowledgeable when you're not, you will eventually get caught and then no one will listen to you again, and if you try to ignore what people are saying so you can get to what you want to talk about, they won't be listening in the first place.  Even when you're not there to deal with emotions in a crisis, you have to be ready to work with them.  That makes the other so much easier.  But to give you an idea how simple this would be to mess up, consider what one woman told Feinberg about what she'd heard from authorities so far:

Please quit telling us that you're going to make us whole. There is nothing that can make these communities whole again.
In other words, please get it.  Please get us.  Do what you can do for us, and acknowledge what you can't.  I think Feinberg is up to the task.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Do Not Become a Casualty Yourself

Anyone who's ever had any kind of emergency training at all has heard some version of the same speech.  "Before you try to help," it goes, "make sure that you yourself can assist safely.  Do not become a casualty yourself."  In a Red Cross CPR class, this comes in the form of the reminder to "Check, Call, Care," that is, check to make sure it's safe before you do anything else.  In a lifesaving swim class, it takes the form of "Reach or throw, don't go," meaning don't get into the water if you can help the struggling swimmer any other way.  CISM has a similar principle, usually expressed along the lines of, "If the incident is personal for you, get someone else."

I bring this up because on Tuesday I was assisting with a response and became a casualty myself, although not, perhaps, in the way you would think.

Earlier this week, a family from Ann Arbor was involved in a major car accident in Virginia.  The mother, Theresa Supica, and one of the daughters, Samantha, were killed, and two other daughters are in the hospital.  The girl who was killed was a student at Slauson Middle School in Ann Arbor, where I am the training coordinator for the CISM teams.  Tuesday night, the team leader for that part of the district had organized a crisis management briefing and general get together for the middle school community as well as the associated elementary schools and the high school the sisters attend.  It was outside on a large patio in front of the middle school.  She asked me to attend as one of the supporting members of the team, which I was happy to do.

Tuesday was a pretty hot and humid day in Ann Arbor.  After work I went to a weight lifting class and, despite the air conditioning, we were all sweating profusely.  About three quarters of the way through the class I started to feel somewhat nauseous, so I sat out in the hallway (where it was a little cooler) for the end of class and felt much better.  I hopped in my car and headed towards Slauson, about 10 minutes away.

Half way there, my stomach started to feel icky again.  I realized I probably should stop driving, and that I wasn't going to be much use at the CMB.  My cell phone was dead, so I thought I'd get to Slauson and find someone I knew to call my husband to come get me.  I pulled into the parking lot, got out of the car, sat down in the grass near my car and, not seeing anyone I knew in the immediate vicinity, flagged down a stranger who was just arriving.

I don't know what I looked like at this point, but it can't have been good, because the woman immediately looked alarmed and said, "What's wrong?"  I asked her to call my husband, and she went to get her cell phone out of her car.  By the time she returned, I was vomiting in the grass, breathing very heavily and losing feeling in my hands.  The woman called 911.

At this point I was pretty much doing a face plant in the grass.  I could hear everyone and I knew what was going on, but I couldn't move and felt just ghastly.  I could hear the woman trying to give directions to where we were, estimating my age ("middle aged" -- I was a little disheartened) and asking if I'd ever had a stroke "before."  When the paramedics arrived and got me onto the stretcher, I was shocked to see that quite a crowd had gathered.  It hadn't occurred to me that I was causing such a ruckus.

To make what is already a long story a little shorter, after 5 hours in the ER and all sorts of tests, the only thing wrong with me was dehydration.  I should know better.  Apparently, however, I don't.  I was embarrassed to have caused such a scene. 

More than anything, however, I knew that I had caused a scene in a place where people did not need more drama.  A community reeling from the sudden death of one of its own does not need the image of a relatively young (OK, middle aged), relatively healthy person being wheeled into an ambulance.  They don't need to hear sirens.  They are working on believing that the world is a safe place once again, and my little episode underlined that maybe it isn't.

To the friends, neighbors, teachers and family of Samantha Supica, I send my heartfelt apologies.  I became a casualty myself.  You have my deepest sympathies and my sincerest regrets.  Thank you for helping me when I should have been helping you.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dallas Police Chief's Personal Agony

Police officer Craig Shaw of Lancaster, Texas, about 20 miles south of Dallas, was shot and killed on Sunday while responding to a shooting at a local housing complex.  Another officer returned fire, killing the suspect, who had, in turn, shot Jeremy McMillan.  The shooter turns out to be the son of Dallas Police Chief David Brown, and McMillan appears to have been targeted at random.  His two young children were in the car with him when he was shot, and emerged covered in their father's blood but unhurt.

We know that the death of a police officer in the line of duty represents a major and complicated critical incident.  Even for those in law enforcement in other jurisdictions, line of duty deaths can be very personal and very traumatic.  The death of Officer Shaw would probably have an impact -- possibly a big one -- on Chief Brown by itself.  The death of his son obviously would, by itself, as well.  And the notion that his son killed someone, too, would be a big deal.  Now Chief Brown has all of these things to contend with at once.

Last week, I spent some of this space trying to get inside the mind of a mother whose daughter killed her son.  While Chief Brown's situation isn't exactly the same, it's not far off.  When someone you love commits murder, it severely tests what you believe about family loyalty.  It's hard to be "loyal" to a family member who has done something so awful, but it takes a big person to reach out to the family of the victim in this situation.  When the victim is themselves someone you care deeply about, your loyalties are torn even further.  And when your loved one, the one who committed murder, is dead themselves, it's hard to know which way to turn.

It's both important and very difficult to remember that, while Chief Brown's son may be at fault for this entire situation, Chief Brown himself is not, nor is his family.  People never know what to say when tragedy strikes a family.  That is only compounded many times over in this situation.  The tendency will be for people to put their energies elsewhere, figuring that comforting the Shaws and the McMillans are much more important than comforting the family of a murderer.  However, this is as much of a tragedy for the Browns as for the two other families. 

We don't like morally ambiguous situations.  We want it to be the case that either we are glad that the shooter is dead or we're not.  If we're reflective in this situation, however, most people will come to the conclusion that there are two conflicting truths in this situation.  The first is that the shooter's death was necessary to prevent further violence (and some of us might say he got what he deserved).  The second is that the death of Chief Brown's son is a terrible loss to his family.  It's hard to hold those two things in our minds at the same time.  I hope enough people close to the Chief can do so to provide comfort and support following this awful incident.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

BP's Tony Hayward Yachts While the Gulf Churns

The CEO of British Petroleum, Tony Hayward, spent some time racing his yacht off the Isle of Wight yesterday.  To put it mildly, this has not gone over well in the United States.  Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace called the mini-vacation, "rubbing salt in the wounds" of Gulf Coast residents.  Larose, Louisiana resident Bobby Pitre told the Associated Press,

Man, that ain't right. None of us can even go out fishing, and he's at the yacht races. I wish we could get a day off from the oil, too.
Taking the sentiment further, Florida resident Raymond Caniveri is quoted by the BBC saying Hayward does not "have the right to have free time at all" during the oil gusher.

I certainly understand why people are mad.  There is no relief in sight for those who live near or depend on the Gulf for a living.  Watching the person in charge take a break rather publicly feels kind of like your surgeon going out to lunch while you're on the operating table.  It seems like she should have her mind on the situation at hand.  But is it really that simple?

Let's start with a reality check.  Tony Hayward is not, himself, trying to plug the oil well.  His company is, and we'd like to think they have their best people working on it.  Tony Hayward is not one of those people.  It's not his job to be one of those people.  And given that this isn't his area of expertise, I personally do not want him to try.  I do want him to make sure that the best and the brightest are working on it and have everything they need to do it successfully.

For the second reality check, let's go back to that example of a surgeon.  It is certainly the case that if I'm having, say, an appendectomy, I expect my doctor to stay in the room the whole time.  But what if I'm having 18 hour brain surgery?  In that case, I actually don't want her in the OR continuously -- she's going to be tired and hungry and need to go to the bathroom, among other things, and she will start making mistakes.  In these situations, my expectation (as well as standard practice) is that the first surgeon hands off to a second one and goes for a break.  This is true for all kinds of prolonged critical situations, from search and rescue to firefighting to transatlantic pilots.  No one can be on the job continuously, and we don't want them to be.

So what did Tony Hayward do wrong?  White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had it at least partially right when he said this was "part of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes" by Hayward and BP.  While it may be true that my brain surgeon can and should get a break during my surgery, she doesn't need to walk past my family in the waiting room saying, "Well, that's about all I can take for one day.  I'm off to the French Riviera.  Have fun!!"  They want her to act like she cares, and that is all that Gulf residents are asking of Tony Hayward.

In addition, when my surgeon goes to get a nap and some lunch, she's leaving someone else in charge.  While there probably was someone else in charge of operations relating to the oil catastrophe yesterday, no one seems to know who it was.  This left the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the whole company was taking the day off.  This, too, was bad public relations and could easily have been avoided.

Does Mr. Hayward deserve to have any time off?  I think he does.  He's not going to be very helpful if he's a complete wreck.  If he had spent yesterday lying in a hammock on his back porch, most likely no one would have noticed.  Someone else could have briefed the press, and if anyone asked he would have been unavailable.  Instead, he chose to blow a giant raspberry at the people of the southeastern United States.  That was probably not the best choice.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Family Shot in San Bernardino Restaurant

A man biked to a Del Taco restaurant in San Bernardino, California this afternoon armed with two handguns.  He walked inside, walked over to a table and opened fire on a family of four.  He then shot himself in the head.  The father of the family died at the scene, and an 8-year-old boy died shortly after arriving at the hospital.  A 5-year-old boy and his 29-year-old mother are in critical condition, as is the 56-year-old shooter (there are conflicting reports, with some indicating that he has also died).  Reports indicate he is the woman's stepfather.

This story is horrific, of course.  In the next day or two we'll be hearing more about the relationships among the shooter and the victims and about what his motive may have been. 

In this lull while we wait for more information, it's interesting to contemplate why we think that more information will be helpful. If we think about it for any length of time, it's obvious that, at least for most of us, there is no motive strong enough to justify this kind of premeditated violence, particularly against children.  No matter what we find out, this story is not going to stop being horrific, so why do we care?  Most would chalk it up to macabre fascination with other people's tragedies, but I think there is more than that. 

We generally think of family members as "safe."  They are not the people who, when we see them walking towards us on the street late at night, cause us to cross the street.  We may or may not like our families, but most of us are not afraid of them.  At the same time, we also know that there are people who, with good reason, are afraid of members of their family.  Abusive spouses and parents, disturbed children and other violent relatives are out there, and their families, quite reasonably, fear them.

For those of us who aren't afraid of any of our relatives, it's hard to fathom that someone close to us could try to kill us in broad daylight in public.  This incident must be different in some way, and we want to know how.  This is not just because of morbid curiosity.  We are looking for evidence that, while we don't fear our families, this family had a reason to fear the mother's stepfather.  If we can figure out the motive, we can reassure ourselves of two things:   First, that the same motive doesn't exist in our own families, and second that this was that "other" kind of family -- one of the ones where people knew they should be afraid.

Why do we need that reassurance?  Because the alternative makes us want to hide under our beds and never come out.  The alternative is that any family, anywhere, any time can go from peaceful to violent.  The alternative is that the people we consider "safe" are not safe, in which case we are not safe, even if we think we are.  No one can live a normal life believing that violence could erupt without warning at any moment.  We all know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that random violence does occur, but for the most part we live life as though it doesn't, and we don't want evidence to the contrary, thank you very much.

I don't know anything about this family -- not even their names.  In the days ahead we'll find out whether this attack was at all predictable.  Whether it was or not, however, will not change the fact that half of this family is dead, and the other half will have to live with that loss and this traumatic experience for the rest of their lives.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Alabama Professor Charged With 1986 Murder of her Brother

In February, a professor in Alabama was charged in the shooting deaths of three of her colleagues at a faculty meeting.  Soon after, it surfaced that she had also shot and killed her brother in 1986 in an incident that was ruled at the time to be an accident.  Today, she was charged with murder in her brother's death.  Because the Alabama charges will take precedence, it is unlikely but not impossible that she will ever go to trial in Massachusetts.

The details of the brother, Seth Bishop's, death are worth looking at, because in hindsight this case is pretty odd.  In 1986, his sister loaded a shotgun in her bedroom, fired a shot and then brought the gun downstairs.  She and her mother, who was in the room at the time, reported that as she tried to unload the gun it went off, killing him.  She then left the house and tried to steal a car from an auto dealership.  She pointed the gun at police when they arrived but was eventually convinced to surrender.  In her room, authorities found a magazine article about another highly publicized case where a man killed his parents and stole a car from an auto dealership in an attempt to escape.  However, in this instance the sister was held for only a couple of hours before she was released without charge.

It's easy for me, 24 years later, to describe this in such a way that it seems the police were at best incompetent in this case.  How does someone try to steal a car and hold police at bay with a shotgun and not get charged?  I can understand believing the shooting was an accident, but the escape wasn't.  Why didn't her actions cause police to look more carefully at the shooting?

The thing that gives me pause every time I read about it, however, is her mother.  Judith Bishop says she was in the room when her daughter shot and killed her son, and she says it was an accident.  How can you watch your own child be murdered and stand by the murderer?  How can you not at least be angry at the reckless behavior that caused the accident, if you really believe it was an accident?

I can't know what was going on in Judith Bishop's head that day, but she has to have been stunned.  Whether or not she was actually in the room, her daughter had shot her son and he was dead.  Her first reaction -- the typical reaction -- would have been "this isn't happening."  So on that level, it makes sense that she told the police that it didn't happen, at least not on purpose.  Admitting to the death of her son was hard enough.  The possibility that her daughter did it intentionally would have been too much to process and accept right away.

Once the shock started to wear off, presuming that the shooting was intentional, Judith Bishop was faced with an agonizing situation.  Not only was her son dead, but the only person to blame was her daughter.  Her choice was to say that her daughter did it intentionally and, effectively, lose a second child soon after the first, or to stand behind her daughter and help herself believe that this was all a terrible accident.  She didn't make the right choice, but she made an understandable one.

If Seth Bishop's sister had been charged in 1986, she most likely would never have gone to graduate school or gotten her job in Alabama.  Most likely, her three colleagues would still be alive.  The charges today are little comfort to those families.  Following traumatic death, our minds naturally turn to blame.  Today, I'm guessing those families are pointing their fingers at Judith Bishop, who now, finally, has tragically lost her second child.

image:  Braintree High School 1986 Yearbook

Monday, June 14, 2010

New Study from NYU Gives Insight Into Trauma, IQ, Racism and Distancing

This week, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has a study from New York University about the affect of traumatic exposure on children's IQs.  Specifically, researchers looked at the IQ scores of children in Chicago who lived in a neighborhood where a murder had taken place, whether or not they had witnessed it, and compared them to children in the same neighborhood who were not tested close to the time of a murder.  They found that, for 7-9 days following the murder, children's IQs dipped about one half of a standard deviation, or 7-8 points.  Given the disparity in crime rates and demographics in American neighborhoods, the researchers surmise that this effect might account for half of the noted gap between the average IQ scores of African American students and their White counterparts.

For people who work with children, and for people who work with people exposed to trauma, this finding is not particularly shocking.  Anyone who has experienced a homicide in their neighborhood can tell you that they feel distracted and not 100% functional for a week or a week and a half afterwards.  Educators have long noticed the dip in academic performance for children who are experiencing stress at home.  The notion that this can be measured scientifically is not much of a stretch.

Apparently, for some people, however, it is.  The Reuters story on this new study is followed by a number of comments, some of which are really disturbing.  One commenter writes:
Just another case of inverted correlation.  Dumb kids from dumb parents do dumb things and end up living in the same area. Smarter kids from smarter parents gradually move out and integrate into a progressive culture.
The same principle explains academic success. Lesser graduate students end up at NYU and have to fave [sic] research results to get attention – and maybe tenure. The brighter ones end up at Harvard or Yale and live by the scientific method.

There are many things wrong with this comment, and I am only going to skim the surface.  The least offensive reading of this is that the commenter misunderstands how the study itself was conducted and presumes that the children who were not exposed to homicide lived in a different neighborhood than those who were.  The most offensive reading is that the commenter is so steeped in their own privilege and the societal racism that comes with it that they cannot even imagine that a study that exposes that privilege and suggests that poor, African-American children may actually be just as smart as anyone else has scientific validity.  My personal opinion is that both of these things are true, at least to some extent.  There is, however, another factor at work here -- a really fervent attempt by the commenter to distance themselves from the violence itself. 

Nobody wants to live in a neighborhood with a high homicide rate.  If you do not live in such a neighborhood now, you also would like some reassurance that you are not at risk of winding up in one so you can feel secure and not spend a lot of time and stress worrying about it.  If you acknowledge that it is some combination of luck, inherited privilege and societal discrimination that has some people living in those neighborhoods and you not living there, then that opens up the possibility that your luck might change.  You might someday live there, and might someday be in danger.  But if your living situation is caused by something inate -- say, inborn intelligence -- then you are not at risk.  You don't have to worry about living in such a neighborhood because only dumb people live there, and you are not dumb. 

The fact that I can explain why someone would think this way, and how it relates to an understandable wish to distance ourselves from violence, should not be misconstrued to mean that I agree with the commenter or approve of what they wrote.  I think this comment is truly repulsive.  We all have a natural urge to distance ourselves from certain types of things.  In this instance, if it's all the same to you, I'll distance myself from this commenter and their way of thinking.

image copyright istockphoto/akajeff

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Incomprehensible Arkansas Flash Flood Deaths

Nineteen people are known dead and at least one is still missing from a flash flood that hit a remote Arkansas campground last week.  The Missouri river flooded in the middle of the night, meaning that many of the campers did not get word of the flood warnings until it was too late.  Reports indicate there were 4 feet of water at the campsite at 2 AM and more than 23 feet by 5 AM.  Bodies have been found as far as 8 miles away.  The reason no one is absolutely certain how many are missing is that no one is absolutely certain who was camping there when the floods came, and many folks are still on camping trips and can't be reached. 

Today, about twenty members of families of the dead and missing were brought to the campsite to see for themselves where this happened, and to look through the debris for personal items belonging to their loved ones.  The damage is horrific.  The water literally peeled up paved roads and sent campers floating down the river.  Everything that was in its path and couldn't move out of the way is moved or destroyed.

I have always found flash floods difficult to wrap my mind around.  I grew up in a hilly part of New England where the nearest rivers flooded, but didn't come anywhere near my house.  When flooding was really bad the river behind my uncle's house would swell through his backyard and into his basement, and local roads would close.  Flash floods, however, were not something I was familiar with.  The terrain where I lived was not conducive to large amounts of water pouring into the rivers and streams all at once, causing the water to rise by feet at a time.  If you went to bed dry, you would wake up dry -- that's how the world worked.

I think even to those of us who live (as I do now) where flash flooding does happen, we still generally believe that to be true.  Floods happen, sure.  But they come with warning and time to get away.  Flooding that comes fast and furious is the stuff of broken levees, not of campgrounds on hillsides.  In our connected world, we expect that, with the exception of earthquakes, natural disasters have some warning.  If bad stuff is coming, we will know.

Nineteen people, including at least 6 children, went camping last week, one presumes for fun, and are not coming home.  They were in their campers or trailers or tents, and the water came faster than they could run.  No one went camping last week thinking they were going to die.  Even the most nervous among us think the dangers of camping involve bears and wolves, or maybe the bogey man hiding in the bushes.  If we imagined that you could drown in your sleep while camping, no one would ever go.  This isn't supposed to happen.  It's incomprehensible.

image:  Reuters

Friday, June 11, 2010

Once Teen Sailor Abby Sunderland is Rescued, Who Will Need Intervention?

Abby Sunderland, 16, has been found safe, floating on her de-masted boat in the Indian Ocean.  Abby's parents had lost contact with her early Thursday morning Pacific Time as she sailed through gusty winds and high waves on her quest to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo.  Shortly after her communications went out, she activated two emergency beacons on her boat, indicating that something else was wrong.  A Quantas airliner spotted her about 20 hours later with the mast of her boat gone.  She appears to be unharmed, and a fishing boat is headed to pick her up.

When this is all over, who in this story do you imagine might show some post-traumatic stress symptoms?  Whose coping mechanisms may have been overwhelmed during these 20 hours of uncertainty?

I'd like to suggest that it isn't Abby Sunderland.  During the 20 hours after her mast snapped, Abby Sunderland knew, the entire time, that she was OK.  She was disappointed, certainly, that her sailing journey was over.  She was worried, I'd guess, about the storms and about how soon help would arrive.  This was close to the worst for which she was prepared, but Abby Sunderland was prepared for this, and she was OK.

The same cannot necessarily be said for her parents.  During those 20 hours, unlike Abby, her parents did not know if she was OK.  In many cases, uncertainty is much more difficult to deal with than the facts, even when the facts are horrible.  When people don't know what has happened or what will happen, they think through all of the possibilities. 

In this case, Abby's parents probably imagined she was dead, she was alive and floating in the ocean, she was seriously injured, and maybe 100 other possible scenarios including the one that turned out to be true.  While they were imagining all of those things, not knowing which, if any, had happened, their minds had to try to cope with all of them at once.  That's an awful lot to process, and might easily overwhelm your coping skills.  It's actually harder than knowing that, say, she actually is seriously injured.  If she were seriously injured and they knew that, they would have to deal with it.  When they imagine that she's injured but also imagine that she's dead, or freezing, or drowning, the have to deal with all of those things, not just the one.

I am reminded of a story my father used to tell about getting separated from his grandmother in Central Park when he was a boy.  When she found him, she referred to him as having been "lost."  He adamantly insisted that he had not been lost -- he knew where he was the whole time.  He was sure it was his grandmother who had been lost. 

Abby Sunderland is most likely not traumatized because she knew she was OK.  I don't know the Sunderland family or how they coped with all of this.  I would certainly want to assess that before deciding they need help.  They are, however, much more at risk than Abby.  After all, Abby knew exactly where she was the whole time.

image: LA Times

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kyron Horman and the Urge to Do Something

Kyron Horman is still missing, more than 5 days after he was last seen at his Portland, Oregon elementary school.  There are twice-daily briefings from the sheriff's department about his case, but they don't seem to contain much information.  The family issued a statement today asking everyone to keep looking.  The search has not been classified as a criminal investigation, and is still largely confined to the local Portland area despite tips coming in from Washington State.

In the absence of any hard information, the media, of course, is making up their own.  It seems like every media outlet has a former FBI profiler or an expert in missing child cases explaining what the police really mean when they say nothing.  Interestingly, not one of these people seems to think the police don't have any idea what happened to this child, and none of them seem to think this is not a criminal investigation.  Apparently, there are clues to the Sheriff's thinking all over the place if you know where to find them -- or imagine them.

One interesting phenomenon of this story has to do with the search.  Police have asked that people not just show up to help look for Kyron, but rather leave that to the folks who are trained in search and rescue.  Apparently, people are showing up anyway.  Today, police took a different tack and asked for donations of food and water for the search and rescue teams.  Searchers are coming from all over Oregon, and they are going to need to be fed.  The press in Portland is now announcing drop off centers where such donations can be left.

So, now is when, in the absence of any hard information, I'm going to make up my own.  In my experience and training, it would be fairly unusual for the authorities to need donations from the public for food and water for the rescue teams.  These sorts of needs are often either covered by donated supplies and services from local restaurants or supplied by the Red Cross, or both.  In a truly huge operation, you can imagine the need outstripping the established methods of getting volunteers fed, but it would need to be truly huge, on the scale of 9-11 (and even there, companies donated tons of food).  So why are the authorities asking the public for this?

My guess, and it is just a guess, is that they are trying to channel the energies of people who want to help.  They don't want people showing up to search, because they aren't properly trained and they may well hinder the operation more than they will help it.  But people don't like to be told to go away at moments like this.  When they are turned away, people tend to interpret this as meaning that the authorities are not doing everything they can, or they simply ignore the instructions and go searching anyway.  People who are scared do not like to do nothing, and helping makes them feel more in control.  This is a natural, understandable reaction, but it needs to be sent in a useful direction so as not to sabotage the very operation people are trying to help.  Asking people to bring food and water for the searchers gives them something to do that is arguably necessary that will not get in the way.  The helpers feel like they're helping, the searchers get food and water, and those with the proper training carry out the search.  Everybody wins.

If there's one thing I know about myself, it is that I am very prone to the need to do something when things go wrong.  That is almost certainly a big piece of why I do crisis response work in the first place.  That's not a bad motivation, and the outcome can be helpful.  It's just a question of sending me off in the right direction, so I don't get in the way.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What Do Peruvians Have to Fear from Joran Van der Sloot?

Joran Van der Sloot confessed on Monday to the murder of a Peruvian woman.  If the name doesn't ring a bell*, perhaps the name Natalee Holloway will.  She's the American who disappeared on a high school graduation trip to Aruba in 2005. Van der Sloot and his brother both spent time in jail as suspects in her murder, but were eventually released.  Van der Sloot has apparently admitted that, on May 30 of this year (coincidentally exactly 5 years since Holloway was last seen), he murdered Stephany Flores Ramirez, 21, after he found her looking through his computer at files about Holloway.

The Peruvian media is all over this case.  According to the Christian Science Monitor, newspapers in Lima are calling Van der Sloot a "psychopath" and a "monster."  Perhaps we can understand why.  CSR also reports that the papers are drawing a connection to other murders of women by foreign men, and warning young women to be careful.  The implication is that foreign men, as a group, are dangerous, and that Van der Sloot is the prime example.

Aside from selling newspapers, there is a good reason why people make this sort of generalization at moments like this.  Our brains are wired to look for patterns and connections among different stimuli.  In nature, the ability to notice what signals that a predator is about to strike is very important for survival, so it's not surprising that humans evolved to have this ability and this tendency.  When something bad happens, we automatically look for the pattern that will warn us the next time and, hopefully, save us from the next predator.

The problem here is that we also tend to see patterns that are completely irrelevant, and to attribute meaning to them.  In this instance, the Peruvian press has hit upon the pattern that Van der Sloot, and some other suspects and convicted murderers, are all foreigners.  They extrapolate from that the idea that women should be careful of foreigners.  The problem is that being foreign is not what made these men murderers.  I'm not familiar with the crime statistics in Lima, but my guess is that there are many more murders of women by Peruvian men, just going by sheer numbers.  Nobody is suggesting that women stay away from Peruvian men, or from all men, though.  Those aren't interesting patterns for our brains to latch onto -- they're not specific enough.  Foreign men are.

Being wary of foreign men in this situation makes about as much sense as being wary of blonde men, or men with short hair, or men who are 6 feet tall.  All of these things may describe Van der Sloot, but none of them is a remotely reliable signal that someone is a murderer.  We could also suggest that women should avoid men whose first name starts with J, or who have three parts to their last name.  Somehow, we manage to understand that these patterns are meaningless.  The pattern of people being from a foreign country, however, also taps into some deeply rooted fears of the unknown and biases against the "other," and so newspapers can get away with publishing what is almost certainly an equally meaningless theory.

It is probably a good idea for women to be careful, period.  They should probably be especially careful around people who are larger and stronger than they are who they don't know -- often this will be men who are relative strangers.  Where someone is from is not a useful piece of information in avoiding psychopaths.  It's too bad, really.  The world would be a lot safer if picking out the predators was that easy.

* Once again I've violated my rule about not naming perpetrators.  This story is only getting press, however, because of who the perpetrator is, so it seemed to make sense to publish his name.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Kyron Horman's Disappearance is a Nightmare for Everyone

On Friday morning, 7-year-old Kyron Horman attended his school science fair in Portland, Oregon with his step-mother.  At 8:45 AM, he walked down the hall at Skyline Elementary School, towards his 2nd grade classroom.  He has not been seen since.  Just before 4 PM, when Kyron didn't get off the bus at home, his step-mother called the school and learned he had never been in class.

The disappearance of a child is every parent's nightmare.  Most of us know that instinctively.  This particular scenario, however, is also every school's nightmare.  A child makes it to school and the school loses track of them, and they're gone.  I wish I could say that I can't imagine how this could happen, and certainly it isn't easy, but honestly, this could have happened at any school I've ever worked in.

Most schools have a system that works something like this:  when the bell rings, the teacher takes attendance.  That is conveyed -- either by a child messenger or by computer -- to the office.  Someone in the office, meanwhile, is taking phone calls from parents calling to say their child is sick and matching these with reported absences, also taking into consideration any children who come in late.  Then the office, or an automated system, calls the homes of children who are not accounted for.  Ideally, this should be done by the time an hour or so has passed.

There are plenty of places for this system to go wrong.  The teacher accidentally marks the wrong child absent.  She marks "excused absence" instead of an unexcused one, perhaps because a friend says he's sick, so the computer records that the parent has called the child off.  There is a sub who doesn't know how to properly mark the sheet, so the office misreads the attendance sheet.  There is a sub in the office who doesn't fully understand the system, or doesn't make phone calls at all.  Someone with a similar name signs in late, and the wrong child is marked tardy.  Some emergency takes attention away from attendance in the office, or a single phone call doesn't get made.

Now a child is missing, and it isn't hard to point fingers at the school, rightly or wrongly.  This is one of those times when the need for peers in early crisis response is especially clear.  The school staff are feeling terribly guilty, and they need to be able to talk to someone who understands how this could happen.  The Principal needs a Principal who gets that sometimes attendance isn't done properly.  The secretary needs a secretary who knows how hard it is to keep track of everyone.  The teacher needs another teacher.  And all of them need school staff who know how very responsible all of us in schools feel when something goes wrong on "our watch," and how much harder it is when you're being blamed from the outside as well as yourself.

As much as I know this could have happened in my school, or any school, I will also admit to some healthy skepticism.  The chances of the system failing for any individual child are pretty small.  The chances of it failing for the one child who happens to be missing are infinitesimal.  Something else happened here.  Maybe the school knows what it was, maybe they don't.  But even if they know what it is, even if they know it wasn't their fault, they're still going to feel guilty, and they're still going to get blamed.  Let's hope that somehow, Kyron gets home safe soon, and both the parents and the school can wake up from this nightmare.
Sunday, June 6, 2010

SBNR After a Trauma

CNN.com has an article today about people who consider themselves "Spiritual But Not Religious,"  also known as SBNR.  According to this piece, over 70% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 consider themselves to be more spiritual than religious.  This has various organized religious institutions worried for reasons ranging from the practical -- people who are SBNR don't join organized religious institutions -- to the moral -- some are concerned that if all that matters is your personal relationship with God, you have no reason to be altruistic. 

I have a different concern, or at least a question:  What happens to people who are SBNR when they are exposed to traumatic incidents?  Make no mistake about it -- early crisis response has everything to do with religion.  While we definitely don't push any particular religion in CISM practice, religion can be an important topic.  One of the common reactions people have to traumatic stress is to experience a crisis of faith.  When something awful happens, they wonder how God could let it happen.  On the other hand, some people find the opposite -- that their faith helps them through a difficult time.

So what happens if somebody doesn't have religious beliefs at all?  On the one hand, they don't experience a crisis of faith, so they get to avoid that sense of disequilibrium.  They had no expectations that God would prevent bad things from happening in the first place, so it doesn't throw them off, at least in that way, when something happens.  At the same time, they don't have the comfort of being able to turn to their faith in a crisis, believing (or knowing) that God will take care of them.

There is another important role that religion plays in recovering from a traumatic event, however.  People who have experienced a critical incident need a lot of support.  Isolation is a serious risk factor for mental health problems and for suicide.  People need to be part of a community.  Religious congregations, for many people, provide that community.  In fact, when we train CISM responders to know the difference between typical reactions to serious events and those that are possible warning signs of significant problems, cessation of religious activity is on the latter list, because it represents people withdrawing from their support system.

So what about these SBNR folks?  What happens to them following a traumatic incident?  Obviously, there's no one answer to that.  What I will say, though, is that religion is not actually the key issue here, nor is spirituality.  What is key is community.  So, if people who consider themselves SBNR are part of a community -- whether it is other SBNR people, or a softball team or a community center, they get many of the same benefits that someone who is active in their church gets after an incident.  If, on the other hand, being SBNR means that they are spending less time with and have less connection to other people, they will have one less resource to help them when something bad happens.

I don't think you need religion, necessarily, to recover from trauma.  I also don't think you need religion to be altruistic.  It just so happens that organized religion comes with a sense of community, which promotes both healing and altruism.  As long as you can get that community some other way, whether you are part of an organized religious group or not is truly a matter of personal faith, not a practical necessity.
Thursday, June 3, 2010

The British Perspective on Mass Shooting

A 52-year-old taxi driver in Cumbria, England, shot and killed his twin brother, the family lawyer and 10 other people, wounded 25, and finally killed himself yesterday in a rampage that lasted almost three hours.  News reports say that the gunman was upset about what he perceived as an unfair distribution of his father's estate and sure that his brother and the attorney were conspiring to do the same with his mother's.  In addition to his brother and the lawyer, he shot at fellow cabbies and drove down the street shooting at random strangers.

This is a horrible incident in any country.  A lot of the questions being raised in the British press are the same ones we would expect if this happened in the United States:  Were there warning signs missed?  Why did it take police so long to catch him?  As is natural after an incident like this, people are searching for someone to blame, because they need some way to reassure themselves that this sort of violence can be stopped.  Who knows, maybe this could have been.

One question that is coming up rather prominently is a little different than you would expect in the United States, however.  How did he get the guns?  The United Kingdom has notoriously strict gun control laws.  Even police officers are not automatically given permission to carry firearms, and most of them don't.  In order to get a permit for a gun, you have to have a legitimate reason (self defense is not considered a legitimate reason), a letter from your doctor, two character witnesses, not have been imprisoned for three years or more, have a face to face interview and have a personal inspection of where you are going to keep the gun.

I heard an interview on NPR yesterday with a local journalist about the question of where the guns came from.  Towards the end of the interview, the questions turned to  the provenance of the guns.  She said that police would be investigating whether the shooter was licensed to have a gun, and that "if he wasn't, that will be very bad."
Can you imagine someone saying that in the United States -- that it would be very bad to learn that a shooter didn't have a permit for a gun?  I doubt it.  We are used to the idea that people who are not supposed to have firearms have them anyway.

When this journalist says that finding out the shooter didn't have a permit would be "very bad," she's not talking about it being bad for the police or the government.  She's not talking about it looking bad.  What she's saying is that finding out that this man could get a gun illegally would mean that others can get them too.  That would be dangerous, and it would represent a complete shift in how Britons think about gun violence in their country.  In England, you don't generally worry that everybody is packing heat.  If this shooter could get a gun, it would mean that things are a lot more dangerous than they thought they were.  It would be very bad.

We all live with the knowledge that we are in a certain amount of danger.  If you live in a war zone, you make your peace somehow with that so you can sleep at night.  If you live in the United States in a relatively quiet town, the amount of danger you have to make your peace with is much less, but it's not zero.  If you live in Cumbria, England, there are various ways you could be subjected to violence or sudden injury or death, but being shot, until yesterday, was not something you had to worry about a whole lot.  Today, they're very worried. 

The good news, such as it is, is that it turns out the shooter did indeed have a license for his guns.  On the one hand, that means that a potential mass murderer was licensed, which increases the calculation of the odds that someone else is out there, licensed and ready to crack.  On the other hand, it also means that there isn't a hole in the wall keeping guns out of everybody's hands, and so maybe the people of Cumbria, at some point, will be able to return to not worrying about it quite so much.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Substance Abuse, Waiting for the Worst, and the Death of Andrew Koppel

Andrew Koppel, 40, was found dead early this morning.  He apparently had gone on an at least day-long drinking binge, bar hopping throughout New York City.  He finally wound up, with his drinking buddy, at the apartment of one of the buddy's friends.  He went to sleep it off, and never woke up.  Among others, he leaves his girlfriend, a child, and his famous father, newsman Ted Koppel.  The cause of death has not been determined.  He had a history of alcohol abuse.

This story is in the news because Andrew Koppel's father is famous.  But deaths like this one are, unfortunately, not at all unheard of.  People who live with or love alcoholics and other substance abusers live with the knowledge that, if they don't successfully stay away from their substance of choice, someday it may very well kill the people they love.  Overdose -- in this case, apparently alcohol poisoning -- is only one of a seemingly endless number of ways that people can die from substance abuse.  Motor vehicle accidents, falling or jumping from tall buildings, or picking a fight with the wrong person are a few of the others.

It's likely that the phone call the Koppel family got this morning was shocking.  It's also likely, if stories about Andrew's drinking are true, that they knew such a phone call was a possibility.  At the same time, no one can ever really be prepared for a phone call like that.  Every family hopes that the addict they love will straighten out or sober up before they hit bottom, and the phone call informs them that their hopes are over.

This type of death brings with it a difficult mishmash of themes for those left behind.  Of course they are sad.  They are also angry, because the person who died "did this to themselves."  Unlike a suicide, however, the person didn't do it to themselves on purpose, or at least not as clearly on purpose as if they had completed a suicide.  Those left behind are mad that they didn't stop in time and mad that they couldn't.  They feel guilty because they couldn't save them, and blame others -- the person's friends or other people in the family -- because they didn't.  The drinking or drugs often go hand in hand with mental illness or other complicating factors, and it's hard to know what or who to blame for the result.  In short, it's a mess.

I don't know what kind of relationship Ted Koppel had with his son.  Maybe they were estranged, maybe they were close.  Frankly, it's none of our business.  No father holds his baby and imagines that someday he will bury his son.  No father should have to, no matter how much he may have prepared for the possibility.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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