Fear and Loathing in Pittsburgh: The Online Mauling of a Parent Just Like You

Angry commenters rushed to persecute a woman whose son fell to his death at the Pittsburgh Zoo. If it’s true that horrific accidents could happen to any parent, why can’t we accept that?

 

Imagine it’s a crisp day in early November. The sun is shining, and you know there will be precious few Sundays left with nice weather before the cold sets in. There’s no question it’s a day to be outside.

You have a sweet little family— just you, your spouse, and your 2 year-old son. Maybe you call your parents or your siblings to see if they want to spend the day with you. In any case, you decide to go with your son and family to your city’s zoo.

You set off – it’s about a forty-minute drive from your house in a suburb just south of the city. When you arrive, your son excitedly pulls the grown-ups from exhibit to exhibit. Perhaps you’re the type of parent that holds your child’s hand constantly, never risking a moment with him out of your sight. Or else you’re one to let him wander 10 or 15 feet ahead – he’s getting bigger now and understanding more, and knows that when you yell ‘Red light!’ he’s GOT to stop. And he does, now, without fail – always turning and giving you a grin, too. Really, no matter your style, you’re no different than any of the other hundreds of families spending an otherwise average Sunday at the zoo.

On this day, though, these will be the details that will come to matter the least. To others, anyway. But to you, these moments will soon forever be known as “before.” Every day, for the rest of your life, you will wish you could rewind, relive these details, and change what is about to happen.

Every day, for the rest of your life, you will wish you could rewind, relive these details, and change what is about to happen.

Your family walks up to the next exhibit. It’s a gazebo overlooking a yard with African Painted Dogs – an endangered canine species that look remarkably like German Shepherds, except uglier and more feral. Nevertheless, your son is thrilled to see them; maybe he remembers them from last time you were here. He runs up to the railing and peeks through the bars, but you quickly realize there’s not much to see at his height – the plexiglass below the railing is dirty, and the top of it is a good foot over his head. He looks up at you, lifting his arms to be held. You bend down and scoop him up, as you have thousands of times before. Holding him now, you straighten back up to standing next to the railing. And as you do, all you register is a pulling sensation, then a feeling of sheer panic. In seconds, your son has left your arms and tumbled over the rail. Before you have a chance to react, the dogs are upon him, and your baby boy is being torn apart.

♦◊♦

On November 4th, 2012, news started to spread of what had just happened at the zoo within the hour. Not much was known at first, except a little boy had somehow fallen out of his mother’s arms and over the railing of the Painted Dog exhibit. He was attacked within seconds, and dead within minutes. People throughout Pittsburgh texted, Facebooked, and otherwise shared the news – shocked at what they’d heard, every trip to the zoo they’ve ever taken flashing through their minds. Those with children could hardly handle thinking of what happened. And many parents of toddler boys, on instinct, no doubt hugged them closely: because regardless of his charm, what little boy has never, albeit lovingly, been referred to as a wild little animal himself? Soon, we would have a name and an image to attach to the story: Maddox Derkosh, an adorable 2-year old with thick glasses and a sweet smile, had been killed at the zoo.

Faster than the facts – few though they were – could go around, though, came the rumors and vitriol, fueled primarily by thoughtless online chatter. The story went national by the next morning, international after another day. The Pittsburgh Zoo’s Facebook page had to be taken down intermittently to handle the deluge of cruel comments. Because ironically, much like the dogs followed their nature when they encountered something unfamiliar in their pen, people exhibited their own pack mentality as they descended upon Elizabeth Derkosh, Maddox’s mother. Endlessly, it seemed, they sought to reaffirm to one another that this could only have been due to her idiocy and neglect, with comments denigrating her invariably getting more support than the few attempting to call off these wild animals. Common themes emerged in their attacks.

Much like the dogs followed their nature when they encountered something unfamiliar in their pen, people exhibited their own pack mentality as they descended upon Elizabeth Derkosh, Maddox’s mother.

Many mourned the loss of common sense in our society, apparently throwing proper spelling and grammar to the wind in their grief:

“People need to take responsiblility for their own actions. Common sense and responsiblility is very hard to come accross these days” lamented one. (Perhaps not surprisingly, this appeared on the Facebook page of a particularly salacious local news station, known for its reporting on any story even vaguely scandalous in the tri-state area.)

Their cognitive dissonance allowing them to believe this mother was clearly partying on a yacht somewhere now that her child was dead, some spoke of Elizabeth Derkosh as though they had read news stories to which the rest of us somehow lacked access. Despite no public statements whatsoever from Mrs. Derkosh, one man, in response to a defense of the mother, somehow still knew “she wants to blame everyone but herself.” Another common sentiment – again, one with no evidence supporting it – was that the mother failed to go into the pit after her child. Because what parent wouldn’t go into a pit where her child was being eaten alive? One clever poster found a way to not only engage in speculation, but some blatant sexism, speculating that, since Mrs. Derkosh hadn’t gone in after Maddox, “her husband [must not have been] with her, or surely he would have.”

There were certainly demonstrations of compassion, but mostly those were, as the kids say, “IRL.” Money was collected to help the parents, and after a request by the family for toy trucks to be donated to charity in Maddox’s name, donations poured in. Online, though, few voices called for decency and common sense. Some pointed out that maybe, the mother had actually been held back from going in by bystanders. Some pointed to the fallibility of all parents:

How many people do things that can hurt a child everyday. How about that speed limit you didnt obey. How about letting your child ride on stroller without a seat beat [sic]. How about the time you let your child pet a dog you didn’t know.

While expressing sympathy for the mother’s plight, even these commenters were unable to refrain from pointing out it still was her fault.

But the majority continued their shameless virtual public stoning of this mother. Lacking understanding of the lightning-quick, chaotic nature of many crises, they seized upon a police officer’s remarks in the immediate aftermath that the child had been placed on the railing by the mother prior to falling. “Almost immediately after that he lost his balance, fell down off the railing into the actual pit and was immediately attacked by 11 dogs,” this officer was quoted as saying.

Though willing to speculate, even with a notable lack of information, on everything else about the situation – including the mother’s motivation, character, and intelligence – the public latched on to this statement for dear life. No variation of this version of events would be tolerated (even, we’ll see, when the District Attorney’s findings would ultimately not appear to support this). The Twitterverse, always up for a good lynching, weighed in expressing disgust. Like the child’s game of Telephone, the officer’s statement was elaborated upon and distorted, with witnesses’ statements tossed around like confetti (“I have seen comments elsewhere that she had been placing the child on various walls and barriers throughout the day and zoo staff had already asked her to stop,” one particularly persistent poster insisted).

Never one to disappoint the public’s need to rubberneck, the media actively enabled and participated in this speculation. One overseas news outlet painted a vivid picture for the reader with an article containing the subtitle that Maddox was “. . . mauled to death by African wild dogs after [his] mother dangles him over railings.”

Indeed, ABC News, for its “Good Morning America” report on the story, went so far as to create a “virtual reenactment” of the tragedy, depicting a child balanced precariously on a railing as his digital mother passively stands by, arms hanging by her sides. When additional details eventually came to light following the district attorney’s investigation, this depiction would prove to be so inaccurate that it could be said to represent an entirely different reality. . . perhaps a reality in which a mother who, by all accounts, was caring, attentive, and loving, would ever do such a thing. By comparison, it seems a small matter that the design of the railing in this video was glaringly different from that in the actual exhibit — pictures of which were readily available online even prior to the accident, had the videos’ producers cared to at least be accurate on this front.

Of course – and perhaps most critically – this account of the fall provided a convenient way for the public to rationalize why this was, in fact, something that could never happen to them. One man bragged:

I have been to this exhibit several times with my kids and they never fell in. hell we went behind the scenes and I had my 3 kids ( 7,5 and 2) 2 feet away from a fully grown lion and yet my kids are all perfectly fine. Y? Because I am a responsible parent that has a higher than 2nd grade education.

And predictably, many posters called for the mother’s prosecution, with some going so far as to label her “a murderer” and a few comparing her to Susan Smith or Casey Anthony. When a former zoo employee came forward to tell the media that he had seen many parents hold their children on this very same railing, only to have his concerns ignored by management, he came under attack as well. Some dismissed him for looking for his “15 minutes” or having a connection to the Derkosh family, while others criticized the news reporter for calling on this man as an “expert” (when the reporter, of course, never claimed any such thing). Finally, when Maddox’s maternal grandfather spoke out about the tragedy just a few days after Thanksgiving in a tearful interview with the local news about his family’s attempts to cope and their efforts to collect trucks in Maddox’s name, multiple commenters expressed disgust at the grandfather and noted how sick they were of the family “pushing this trucks stuff.”

♦◊♦

Nearly four weeks after the accident, Allegheny County’s District Attorney, Stephen Zappala, announced to the public the findings of his office’s investigation of Mrs. Derkosh. He explained that she would not face charges. They had concluded that it was, in fact, a freak accident – the child lunged out of his mom’s grasp as she picked him up to her height, standing at the railing, for him to see better.  In Zappala’s quotes released by the media, there was no indication that the child had been stood or otherwise placed on the railing. He noted that after it happened, the mother had tried to go in after her child, only to have onlookers hold her back. The child’s poor eyesight may have contributed both to his need for his mom to help him get a better view, and, some witnesses speculated, his brain’s perhaps fooling him into thinking there was plexiglass that would keep him safe just beyond the railing.

Such an expert determination did little to please those who had already convicted the mother in the court of public opinion. Many became armchair physicists, insisting that based on photos of the railing, or having seen it in person, that there was just no way this could have happened unless the mother was exceptionally careless. And “no one could have held me back,” another woman wrote in reply. Others continued to refer to her standing Maddox on the railing, as though it simply remained a given despite no apparent support.

This is not as Zappala described it:

The mom picks up the child, has the child by the waist; in almost one motion as the child is elevated. The child moves forward with both hands and his face; mom loses control of him.

And that’s the fear, isn’t it? That as a parent, you might someday, somehow, accidentally just lose control of the little being you love most in the world.

♦◊♦

Of course, what has been missing from this discourse is recognition of the fact that those seemingly quiet voices pleading for common sense and the understanding that this really could happen to anyone are actually, painfully right.

In his 2009 Pullitzer-Prize winning article “Fatal Distraction,” Gene Weingarten offers a critical look at the increasingly common phenomenon of children dying after being inadvertently left by their parents in overheated cars. The parallels of the tragedies discussed in this article and the public’s subsequent response to the zoo tragedy are chilling.

Psychologists have found that there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the prior parenting skills, or lack thereof, exhibited by a parent and whether he or she might somehow make this tragic mistake.

Weingarten makes the highly convincing case that such accidents can, and do, happen to anyone – even the most conscientious, caring, and intelligent parents. Indeed, psychologists have found that there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the prior parenting skills, or lack thereof, exhibited by a parent and whether he or she might somehow make this tragic mistake. So answering the question he knows so many critics ask –“Who forgets a baby?” he writes:

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Yet, lacking any understanding or acceptance of this, the public inevitably reacts by vilifying the parent.

Discussing one particularly heart wrenching case – if one could really be described as any more painful than the others – in which a man lost his adopted baby boy this way, he quotes typical online commenters:

“This is a case of pure evil negligence of the worse kind . . . He deserves the death sentence.”

“I wonder if this was his way of telling his wife that he didn’t really want a kid.”

“He was too busy chasing after real estate commissions [to remember the child]. This shows how morally corrupt people in real estate-related professions are.”

♦◊♦

If it’s true that this can happen to anyone, though, why can’t most of us seem to accept that?

Because, quite simply, it’s easier not to. It’s the path of least resistance. Every day, otherwise loving parents thoughtlessly risk their child’s safety. In the case of children left in overheated cars, psychologists contribute it to primitive processes in our brains failing us as we manage the more complicated tasks of daily life.

But maybe hearing this, you still don’t think it applies to you. You could never be so thoughtless. But have you ever forgotten to lock your front door at night? Left out a bottle of household cleaner? Failed to turn the pot handle toward the back of the stove?

And is it really possible you’ve never held your child high up to see over a railing, either?

Have you ever forgotten to lock your front door at night? Left out a bottle of household cleaner? Failed to turn the pot handle toward the back of the stove?

Yet much like the outpouring of support for the Pittsburgh Zoo, and cries of anger at any suggestion that common sense might dictate a modification of the Painted Dog exhibit, in the early 2000s, the public failed to embrace a simple keychain device that could help parents avoid accidents like those discussed in Gene Weingarten’s article. Because frankly, a device to help you not forget your kid in the car… who needs one of those?! It’s just so unsexy. So even in those situations where we could take steps to help prevent thoughtless errors with tragic potential consequences, our refusal to recognize the fallibility of human nature prevents this.

Weingarten quotes a clinical psychologist on that very point:

We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with.  As such, they have to be monsters.

♦◊♦

This piece is unlikely to be immune from the disdain of Mrs. Derkosh’s critics, either. And assuming it’s not, watch closely how they frame their arguments. Do they insist it’s a matter of “common sense,” despite evidence to the contrary laid out here? Note how their fear will be disguised as anger, their insecurities hidden behind an insistence that their parenting is too cautious for this to ever happen to them.

And then remember that you have a choice. You can join them, or you can stop and remind yourself “there but for the Grace of God . . .” and go forward with your life.

 

Photo–Flickr/Yvonne in Willowick

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About Bethany Bateman

Bethany Bateman is a licensed social worker with many years experience working with parents, families, and children in the Pittsburgh area. Her professional areas of interest are child development and mood disorders in adolescents and young adults. Currently working in academia, she lives with her husband in Fort Worth, TX. First and foremost, though, she will always be a Pittsburgher.

Comments

  1. Thoughtful article Bethany! I can’t go along with the witch hunt of the mother. It was a horrible and tragic accident that ended the little one’s death. As human beings with empathy, and imperfections ourselves, why not show some compassion to the mother who will live with a nightmare, with every breath she takes, for the rest of her life. To all the infallible mother/fathers/judgemental persons who fling their superior attitude around like it’s reality…get over yourselves, and do some soul searching, if you dare.

  2. *ended in the little one’s death*

  3. Mary Lou Monheim says:

    Thank you for such a sane reply for this attack on a mother.Fact is mothers cannot always protect their children be they 2 or 33. I hope your artical brings her some peace. You can feel the love in your writing well done.

  4. Amen. I am a mother of five (including triplets). My husband and I raised our children living away from extended family so we had very little help of any kind. We used to joke that while we aimed to raise well adjusted, happy, healthy, productive members of society, our primary goal each day was to keep our children alive. We received a mixed bag of responses to this comment, but other parents of large families seemed to relate to the sentiment. My husband and I were both well aware that at any time the unforseen could happen. Even when we, as parents, do our very best to prevent it, tragedy could strike. A car, a body of water, a kidnapper or a fall could rob us of our precious child at any time. We all do our best and when one of us loses the most precious possible gift we should all feel empathy for the family and mourn along with them….and hug our own children a little tighter…..and realize how very lucky we are to still have them to hold….for we are not perfect. I feel blessed every day that I never had to endure such a horrific experience in my life and I pray that I never will. I hope that this family will someday find peace.

  5. R. Todd Erkel says:

    Brave and thorough writing. Every time I approached that exhibit at the Pgh Zoo it caused me pause — it never felt adequately planned or protected. I was disheartened by the Zoo’s official public response.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this article. I must admit that I too was devastated and furious when I first read about this tragedy. I think that people always look for a reason to explain something so horrible…perhaps it’s our human need to convince ourselves that horror is not random but that someone or something is always responsbilbe. This helps us deal with our fear that the world is chaos….something we cannot bear to believe.

    Then I found out her name and googled it. What came up was her Pinterest page. It is still up and I think anyone who vilifies her should go to it. There are countless pictures of little boy’s rooms decorated with trucks and there are several photos of Thomas the Tank Engine railroad tables. Everything was about him and the love she had for him was palpable on those pages. I knew then that this was a horrific accident and I began to cry for her. I am still crying for her because her life is ruined and no, she was not irresponsible and she did absolutely nothing that any parent with a visually impaired child wouldn’t have done. Dear God, how could you let this happen? Please take care of Mrs. Derkosh.

    • Sadly the events of how the child fell were misreported, and it took a few weeks for the final report to come out. Elizabeth did not dangle the child on the railing as it was reported, nor did she stand him on the railing. Somehow, Maddox lunged out of her arms, and that was the end.

      We live in a world where Zookeeper do not carry guns, but teachers are suppose to.

      I suspects I will think about this child for the rest of my life, as I will the 20 children in Sandy Hook. We expects Zoos and schools to be 100 percent safe. Both tragedies are unspeakable.

      Loosing a child to illness is unbearable, losing a child in this manner is beyond comprehension. I would be ruined beyond repair.

      Pray for these families.

  7. Meiyen says:

    I know it has been several months since this article and the tragedy occurred. When I first heard the story, I felt nothing but anguish, horror, and PAINFUL sympathy for Elizabeth Derkosh. I found a Facebook page of mothers who banded together to write letters of support to Elizabeth, and I joined them. As a mother, it is still so, so hard for me to think about what happened, and I spent several virtually sleepless nights over the tragedy, thinking of what Elizabeth Derkosh must be going through. I felt angry when I read the judgmental statements of so many. At the end of the day, all of those people who were so quick to judge did not have to come home to an empty toddler’s bedroom full of trucks and no one to play with them…they did not have to plan and sit through a funeral for their mauled baby boy…and they don’t have to live with this horror for the rest of their lives. My heart hurts terribly for Elizabeth Derkosh, even to this day. Of course she has feelings of guilt – what parent wouldn’t? But that doesn’t mean she’s a bad or negligent parent, or that she’s any worse a mother than anyone else. This was just a terrible accident. My prayers continue to go out for the Derkosh family. You are always on my heart, as is little Maddox.

    • So, now the mother has filed a civil suit against the zoo for a minimum or 300K in damages. I was curious if this would change anybody’s opinion, or your thought’s on the case. This is the first source I have found that presents some good arguments against fault and for sympathy.

      • The Derkosh,s should bankrupt the Zoo, and it still would not be enough. Call me a blue state liberal, but a family zoo needs to be childproof. i will go further to say, the schools in Ok should have storm cellars, and mentally I’ll teenagers should not have AR-15″s.

        We can not stop every act of violence and tragedy but schools need to safe and children ca not be attacked at zoos. that exhibit was a disaster waiting to happen.

        I would eater die in the pit with my child then face this the rest of my life.

        pray for the child and family.

  8. Maryland Mom says:

    What a terrific article. Thank you for writing this. We as parents are ALL guilty of multiple mistakes and missteps and oversights that could end in tragedy. But most of the time we get lucky. Mrs. Derkosh didn’t. But she is no worse a parent that any of us. It’s impossible to be perfect all the time. The haters feel otherwise because it makes them believe their fate is in their control. And the sad reality is that we have very very little control. Most of life is luck.

  9. Yes, it’s a horrific occurrence, but the parents are to blame.

    It’s interesting to hear that the parents are apparently asking for **more money** from their civil suit.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] a well-researched piece, Bethany Bateman wrote about how statistically, the parents whose children are harmed in freak accidents like that one are exactly like you and me. I’ve held my kids up to see over the railing of an enclosure. Haven’t you? I probably [...]

  2. [...] talking about? Think about all the shitty, emotionally distant parents who blew their gaskets when some little kid fell to his death at the Pittsburgh Zoo; think about all of the adulterers and pedophiles who rushed to lambaste everybody from Chuck Robb [...]

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