|Children in Disasters
||[Sep. 17th, 2010|01:51 pm]
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.