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Children in Disasters [Sep. 17th, 2010|01:51 pm]
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A message from Change.org today mentioned pending legislation that's supposed to provide new guidelines to ensure that children in a major disaster are given the support and care they need.  Katrina was the impetus for these proposals, since children affected by Katrina did not get what they needed--food or water or shelter for days, appropriate pediatric care, counseling, family-centered shelter, a swift return to school, for weeks to months.

What concerns me about the legislation--which I admit I haven't read every bit of--is that one of the worst abuses in Katrina occurred because of the way people were being rescued out of the flood waters. Families were separated, and the chaotic way ID and record-keeping was done meant that finding each other later could be extremely difficult.  The case I'm most familiar with involved a father and small child (preschool age) on a rooftop.  The rescuers (I think it was a helicopter but may have been a boat) told the father that they could not take him, because they could take only women and children. No men.  Rather than make the child suffer longer on the roof, and with the assurance that someone would be back to collect him in a reasonably short time, the father sent the child with them.

Instead, he spent a couple more days on that roof, ignored by other rescuers because now he was just a black guy on a roof, with no women or children...low priority.  By the time he finally got off the roof, his child was in Texas, in San Antonio, and the ID he'd sent with the boy was lost.  No one he met could tell him where his child might be...not even what state he might be in.  The man had, of course, lost everything, including papers that might have been helpful.  On the other end, the boy was so young, and so traumatized by both the disaster and the separation from his father, that he was not able to give complete information.  As the weeks passed, with (apparently) no one looking for him and no paperwork to indicate he had living parents or a legal guardian, he was considered an orphan by CPS.   As the evacuation centers began to close, he was aimed at the foster care system in Texas..

The man kept searching, of course, and finally found a Red Cross person who listened to him and helped him hunt around, and eventually (when they thought they'd found the boy) drove him to San Antonio.  They were reunited.  Well over a month after being parted by a stupid (to my mind) rule.  This was a big story in Texas for a few days at the time of the reunion, but may not have made it out into the national consciousness.

What I want to see in the new legislation is a direction to emergency services that children should never be separated from an adult who knows them in the middle of a disaster situation, without specific cause Iuf the child says they don't know that adult, if the child shows fear of that adult, if the adult's ID of the child does not agree with the child's.).

Information about the child's identity, former address, school (if school age) and class should be collected from the adult at first contact.  If conditions require an emergency movement, then both adult and child should be transported together, and not separated at least until this information is provided.  Despite the known fact that separated parents can have serious rows over child custody, and one could take advantage of a disaster, the most important fact is that a child in a disaster situation is safer in company with an adult the child knows and trusts  than in the hands of strangers--if nothing else, more likely to get back to the family in good time.  Preschool children are especially vulnerable because they may be pre-verbal, lack the knowledge needed to make certain identification, or be unable to communicate due to the trauma itself. It doesn't matter if the adult is a parent--if the disaster itself separated child from parent, then another family member or neighbor or teacher who knows the child's identity, pre-disaster address and the name of a parent is still invaluable and that person should be transported with the child.  And the gender of the adult taking care of the child should not matter.  The goal should be to keep families together, and if that's not possible keep a child with an adult who knows the child until the parents or other family members can be located.


[User Picture]From: catsittingstill
2010-09-17 08:28 pm (UTC)
That makes sense.

I had no idea it was common practice to separate children from their caregivers in emergencies. That strikes me as very counterproductive.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-09-17 10:27 pm (UTC)
It's not supposed to be common practice. In small emergencies, I doubt it ever happens. It's the big ones, with a lot of confusion and then people determined to follow some set of rules (like only women and children being transported), that can be this way.

Katrina was a huge revelation to all of us about how large-scale emergency management was going to go. Very different from the hurricanes we went through when I was a kid, in a different location.

No hard-and-fast rules are perfect in big chaotic situations. The idea of taking mothers and children together--fine, made sense. What broke down was the concept of father-and-child as just as important a pairing. And record-keeping: understandable, in the scale of Katrina, that things could go awry, but not having gotten back to the father--having him ignored as "single male on roof" until his son was long gone--is a failure on the part of that particular part of the system.

(I have a sneaking suspicion that the movie "Titanic", in which the rich guy pretends to be a kid's father and gets in the lifeboat, had some influence, but maybe not.) There's a similar situation in the homeless shelter stuff...some shelters for "mothers and children," a very few for intact families, and then shelters for single men, but the presumption that "fathers and children" just don't exist. (Exceptions exist, but too few.) Women are not the only single parents. (They are, on average, economically worse off than single male parents, but single parenting is tough, no matter who does it.)
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[User Picture]From: kengr
2010-09-18 05:35 am (UTC)
Don't get me started. This sort of thing goes along with the assumption that if a child is abused, it's the father doing it and that mothers are never abusers (I threw one of Mercedes Lackey's books across the room when I hit that bit of pernicious bad memeage.)

And let's not go into the "fun" if the parent is trans or the parents are of the same sex. Suddenly shelters want no part of them.

Basically, the problem is *assumptions*. And the failure to *think* that they engender.
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[User Picture]From: catsittingstill
2010-09-18 01:05 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I'm part of the local League of Women Voters. We pick a theme every year to organize our meetings, which each address some aspect of the theme. Last year, for example, was environmental issues, and we asked people from the utilities and the fish and game service and the local environmental protection office to come and present talks, one per meeting.

I think I will suggest next year's theme should be "Disaster Preparedness."
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[User Picture]From: ndozo
2010-09-17 08:36 pm (UTC)
Emergency responders sometimes write on victims with sharpies so that information will travel with them no matter what condition they're in. If you happened to have a sharpie on the roof with you then you'd be in good shape, but seriously, it might make sense to suggest that as part of the disaster preparation PSAs the gov.t puts out. SOme kind of ID that is hard to lose. I know marker washes off eventually, but in a pinch it might help.
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[User Picture]From: queenmaggie
2010-09-17 09:26 pm (UTC)
I was so going to mention this.
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From: pyre006
2010-09-17 08:53 pm (UTC)
I completely agree with you. I also didn't know that they separate *young* children from parents/guardians. I really have a problem with that. Thanks for sharing that information and your opinion.
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[User Picture]From: wyld_dandelyon
2010-09-17 09:30 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-09-17 10:46 pm (UTC)
A lot went wrong in Katrina, as we all know...and many of the wrong things impacted children. It's like when they wanted to prosecute the young man who drove the school bus out full of refugees...they had this top-down, We Must Be in Control thing going on, when in fact that's not the best model for major disasters.

Saw much the same thing in the recent Haiti one..."First we have to have control, and then we can start helping people..." while the people are still hungry and thirsty and scared and hurt, and getting madder by the half hour that they're being ignored. Order is important, and order counts, but if you can provide enough food and water and (luxury) shade from the sun, most people will be sitting there in shock eating and drinking, not up making angry gestures and looking scary.
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From: baobrien
2010-09-18 06:42 pm (UTC)
One of my favorite re-reads is the book "102 Minutes" because it illustrates exactly that oddly hopeful lesson - unofficial people can and will save themselves and each other in major disasters. It's also an example of a disaster where people who obeyed official direction to stay where they were when they could have evacuated or directions to go back upstairs in the south tower just died. Central control couldn't help them.
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[User Picture]From: londonbard
2010-09-17 10:27 pm (UTC)
You are absolutely right; children should not be seperated from their caregivers during any kind of disaster or emergency.
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