The Tragedy of Icebergs

Sunday, April 15, 2012, was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the disaster that caused more than 1500 deaths and resulted in myriads of books, songs, and movies.  The current re-release of the James Cameron 1997 Titanic in 3-D is the highest grossing film in history.

Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally) on April 15, 2012, I was in Belfast, Ireland where Titanic was built.  I was there for the British Association for the Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (BASPCAN) Congress to present on a project I have developed called Moving Mountains.  All over Belfast were reminders that this was the original home of the ship that was built to be unsinkable.  There was a model made of balloons in the Victoria Mall, pictures of the ship on feather banners hanging from lamp posts, various menu items (unsinkable baked potatoes and Titanic ale,) and signs that read, “She was all right when she left here!” implying that the workers of Belfast had done a fine job building her and someone else was responsible for wrecking her.  Then there was the Titanic Experience, with ads touting, “inside, the state-of-the-art exhibits make you think you’re part of the maiden voyage.  Don’t panic.  You aren’t.”

I must say I found the museum quite interesting with even an amusement park-like ride that takes you through the construction process in the belly of the ship.  One oddity, however, that my daughter. Alex  (who came along to the conference and then subsequent jaunt out to the west coast to Doolin with it’s fine pubs, music and ever flowing Guinness) and I discovered was that in the digital reenactment of the sinking, the ship tips up, stern to the sky, slightly twists and then slips silently under.  I think we all know that the ship actually sank about three quarters under and then split between stack 3 and 4 with the two pieces, bow and stern sinking separately.  Asking staff at the museum why this was not depicted correctly we were told, as if no one else had noticed, that seeing the ship break apart might be too upsetting for people.   Hmmmmmmm 1,500 people dead, but a digital reproduction of the ship breaking apart might be too upsetting?

This then is the story of a ship, but what is the story of the iceberg?  The exterior of the museum actually looks like it could be either the Titanic or the iceberg.

This makes me wonder about the iceberg that was just a piece of nature, beautiful glittering ice floating like a moving mountain on the sea, and like the ship, a massive traveler in the north Atlantic.  Icebergs are composed of freshwater and therefore are slightly less dense, 8/9s the density of seawater so only 1/9th of the ice is above the water surface.  After breaking away from a glacier,  bergs flow along, most of their mass and importance  unseen as they are carried by the Gulf Stream into warmer and warmer waters  to slowly melt and disappear entirely.  Unless there is a tragic meeting with a ship, they are doomed to be 90% unnoticed, unrecognized, undetermined.  So the phrase “tip of the iceberg” has flowed into our vocabulary, meaning there is ever so much more than meets the eye.

So meanwhile back at the conference, along with many other professionals including two of my dear friends/colleagues, Linda Burnside, founder of Avocation in Winnipeg, Canada, and Theresa Covington, Director of the National Center for Child Death Review, I was a workshop presenter.  My presentation titled Moving Mountains:  Enabling Children, Disabling Child Abuse was based on several years of research and project development to provide child abuse identification and treatment for children with disabilities.  Early research in the field of child abuse prevalence determined that children with disabilities were abused at approximately twice the rate of typical children.  Later studies reported that the rate was much higher, at least 4 to 10 times the rate of typical children, very difficult to identify and determine.  Working in the field of child abuse treatment I found that often referrals of children who had been abused did not include information about their disabilities and often children with disabilities were not referred for child abuse evaluations.  Children with disabilities who were abused were so often not identified, not treated, not believed, not listened to, not recognized; they were submerged deep in that unseen iceberg, only the tip noticed and helped.  Reaching children with disabilities is challenging.  Like typical children they are usually abused by people they know and who care for them; kids with disabilities just have so many more caregivers and people they have to depend on for their day to day activities.  The challenges of identification of abuse of children with disabilities and their ability to disclose are myriad.  In addition, the justice system discounts the testimony of children particularly with cognitive disabilities; like children under the age of 5 they are usually not considered credible and swearable and cases can only proceed if there is a witness or corroborating evidence.   So the abuse and deaths go unnoticed, unrecognized, undetermined.

After the Titanic sank and the International Ice Patrol was formed in 1914. several pieces of legislation were passed to assure that passengers on ships were safe:  a requirement for ships to check the Ice Patrol’s iceberg sightings, carry enough life boats, avoid ice fields.  Since the deaths of 1,500 people of the Titanic, there have been no other sinkings of ships and loss of life due to collisions with icebergs.  In the U.S alone more than 1,500 children a year die from abuse; 90% of these are children under the age of 3.  The number of children with disabilities  who die from abuse is undetermined.  Year after year the tragedy continues.

So those of us across the spectrum of health providers must be vigilant observers…and listeners.  Children of differing abilities based on their age and on their abilities have different ways of communicating with us and we need to be paying attention to any indicators that a child is at risk or is being treated abusively. We all need to remember that what is obvious, the glowing brilliant tower above the water is not our only concern.  Children, especially those who cannot always speak for themselves, who go unnoticed beneath the surface are the most vulnerable.  We all need to be committed to assuring their care, safety and well-being.  We are all called to be look-outs to save the lives entrusted to us.


Child Abuse and Children with Disabilities

Violence against Disabled Children…/UNICEF_Violence_Against_Disabled_Children_.

7. Sexual abuse of children with disabilities…/Brown.pdf

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