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August 13, 2005

Good mothers panic in a crisis

Earlier this summer, three little boys from Camden, New Jersey became trapped in the trunk of a beat up car that a parent had left unlocked on the lawn. Neither the police, nor the parents thought to check the trunk and the boys suffocated while everyone was frantically looking elsewhere.

An offical report on the incident concluded there was "plenty of blame to go around"--but laid the bulk of the responsibility on the so-called professionals who were directing the search.

So, what kind of story is this?

Mother of Missing Boys Calm in 911 Calls [AP]

On the recording, Cruz tells a police dispatcher: "There are three little boys missing. We've been looking for them for like three hours and we can't find them."

With no audible emotion, she gave her address and the boys' ages. The operator said an officer would be sent out. The tape, less than a minute long, was made public Friday.

The story is implying that this woman ought to have been audibly distraught on the phone. Why? Because if she really loved her kids she'd be bawling, not keeping a level head in a crisis. Do you think a calm, measured 911 call from a Dad would garner the same veiled criticism? Unlikely.


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In a word, no.

The sad fact is that we have all seen and heard too many of these missing kids stories. They are played out as dramas, triumph and tragedy, on television. As result, we all carry around a working script in our heads of how we expect them to unfold.

Most good criminal investigators will tell you that it's very, very hard to predict how a particular person will respond to a crisis. In fact, over-the-top grief and wailing is actually considered to be more suspicious than a blank affect.

I'm guessing that, when the mother made the call, she was still in denial mode: the kids had just wandered too far, they were playing in a neighbor's yard, the police had already found them, everything would be fine, just fine, no, really, just fine. So she was able to sound calm to someone who couldn't see her.

I also suspect there's a bit of a racial stereotype in action here, since the family's last name is Cruz. After all, "everybody knows how emotional Those People are, so the mother should have been hysterical. Because that's how Those People act."

In this case, yes. I live outside of Philadelphia, the TV market in which this tragedy occurred. We have been exposed to every twist and turn of this story. The media have been very sympathetic to the parents, of course. But one of the family's lawyers just announced that they were suing the city of Camden for the police's failure to find the kids. This has garnered a negative buzz toward the parents in some quarters.

Today in the Philadelphia Inquirer the front page tells us that it was common knowledge that the kids played in the car they got trapped in.

I don't think this is anything but police PR pushback against the family's lawyer, implying the parents were to blame. Weren't they?

How totally idiotic. A seemingly calm demeanor is predictable with shock of any sort.

Having been in shock myself a time or two, I can testify that measured words and lack of emotion are par for the course. Jeebus, what planet are these people on?

I will NEVER EVER understand people who are cruel to grieving parents.


PR pushback? Yeah, I'd say so: "Officials have said...the boys' parents were partly responsible because they waited about three hours before calling police."

Why would a reporter write something so self-serving without demanding that the source go on the record? Were the parents supposed to call 911 without even looking for the boys first?

"measured 9/11 call "

I assume you mean a 911 call, not a 9/11 call.

Lawrence, thanks.

Waiting to call 911 didn't turn out to be the problem. The kids were alive in the trunk for many, many hours. If anyone had thought to look in the trunk, they could have been saved. The slow police response wasn't the critical factor, either. The tragedy happened because nobody thought to look in the trunk of the car. The police really should have thought of that. I can understand family members overlooking all kinds of things in the heat of the moment, but the cops are supposed to be professionals. IIRC, they even brought in tracking dogs to the yard and somehow missed the trunk.

The cops are trying to shift blame to the parents. That is why the cops released the tape.

that is despicable.

I suck at linking, so I won't try. Check this out:

Click on The Myth of Panic on the left sidebar. Interesting article about what happens to people in high stress situations.

My daughter disappeared. She is severely autistic, and could not possibly inform strangers of her name or where she lived. My wife called me at work in a slight panic. It took her all of about 10 seconds to realize the most important thing she could do for her child was to become calm, and she did so. She called 911, and the fire department found my daughter very quickly. When we got her home safe, THEN we freaked out.

The woman in the news was in a situation where panic would not be so sudden. The boys being missing for a few minutes would not be a big deal. By the time that their disappearance became an issue, she had time to adjust to the situation, get a grip, and rationally call for help.

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