“ALEXANDRIA, VA – October 10, 2005 — With the successful identification of … [a] two-year old boy [pictured above] found on the roadside in Bremen, Georgia, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported today that all of the children who were alone in post-Katrina shelters have now been identified and reunited with family members.”
There are about 74 million children in this country, almost one quarter of the US population.
According to the October 14, 2009 interim report of the National Commission on Children and Disasters (available here], “… when it comes to disaster planning and management across our great nation, children are not placed on par with adults. In fact, state and local emergency managers are required by federal law to meet the needs of pets in their disaster plans, but not children.”
The Commission found the disaster planning needs of children are frequently overlooked and misunderstood:
“…children are given a passing mention in disaster plans and strategies or relegated to separate annexes in the back of planning documents, which emergency managers may not have the time or resources to address.
….Terrorist events such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the unprecedented nature of the September 11, 2001 attacks … deeply affected children. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of children were separated from their families, and months later, some still remained unaccounted for. Mental health distress and disability remain prevalent in Gulf Coast children who experienced displacement, long after the storms passed through. Wildfires in California, flooding in the Midwest and tornadoes touch the lives of children with increasing frequency, challenging the capability and capacity to respond to frequent local and regional disasters, let alone an event of catastrophic proportions.
Catastrophic or “mega” disasters, whether acts of terror or acts of nature, magnify the weaknesses of our nation’s daily disaster “state of readiness” for children, whether in schools, child care centers, pre-hospital Emergency Medical Services (EMS), hospitals, juvenile detention facilities or families. Moreover, inadequacies for children exist in: emergency equipment and medications; essential supplies and services in mass care shelters; reunification systems; pediatric training of first responders; capacity of EMS and hospital systems to provide acute care; and mental health services across the continuum of disaster management.”
As the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) observe in “Keeping Children Safe: A Policy Agenda for Child Care in Emergencies,”
“… children are not just smaller adults. Their needs are completely different. A sandwich and a cot won’t work for an infant, and certainly not an infant who has been separated from his mother during an evacuation. Children should not have to wait in long lines with their parents to fill out forms, or be exposed to hazardous materials. Because children are left out of emergency planning, this is what typically happens.”
The National Commission on Children and Disasters notes a recent example of treating children as a planning annex:
Throughout this Interim Report, the Commission cites instances of what we characterize as “benign neglect” of children. The consequences of the benign neglect become magnified when children are disproportionately affected by disasters. For example, in April 2009, the H1N1 flu outbreak quickly illustrated this point …. Despite extensive planning for a much larger flu pandemic affecting the general population, the public health concerns of children created by the H1N1 outbreak prompted school and day care closings, creating challenges for accurate and timely communication to school administrators, child care operators, and parents, and economic consequences for families, small businesses and communities. H1N1 serves as a stark reminder of the central position children hold in the family and community.
So let’s add yet one more issue to the mountain of urgent and important concerns.
But what to do about another claim on the diminishing homeland security attention and resource pool?
Today’s guest blogger addresses one piece of this issue in our blog’s occasional How To Improve Homeland Security series. The author is a homeland security executive in a UASI city. Her background is in public health, emergency management and fire services.
What one sentence best describes your idea about how to improve homeland security?
Institutions that provide residential childcare services should be mandated to maintain disaster preparedness and continuity of operations plans.
Describe your idea in more depth.
To ensure national disaster preparedness, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act should be amended to include requirements for institutions that provide residential childcare services – such as schools, daycare centers, and summer camps.
Working parents who provide public safety and critical support services will need to continue working during disaster response and recovery operations. Many times, a parent’s ability to remain at work for an extended period of time or to even go to work each day is contingent upon having safe and reliable childcare services.
To prevent the lack of suitable childcare negatively impacting response and recovery capabilities, institutions that provide residential services to children must be required to maintain disaster preparedness plans. Provision of childcare during a disaster should not become the responsibility of the parents’ employers.
Institutions need to have disaster plans and continuity of operations plans. The disaster plan should include provisions for the care of the enrolled population for at least the first 72-hours of a disaster in the event that children are unable to return home.
Plans should complement the local jurisdiction’s disaster plan, but not be contingent upon local government’s ability to provide supporting services. For example, if government officials order an evacuation to a centralized collection point, the institution must have a transportation plan that does not rely on the government to send transportation resources.
Planning considerations and benchmarks should be standardized. Elements specific to the unique mental health and physical needs of children during disasters should be identified and become part of the required planning mandates. Monitoring compliance with planning requirements could become a responsibility of the governmental body that has licensing authority for each type of institution.
What problem or issue does your idea address?
The effectiveness of disaster response operations and the time required for community recovery are largely contingent upon the collective ability of the public safety and disaster services workforces to continue working. Emergency and medical service providers and personnel working to restore basic infrastructure, such as electrical power and roadways, will likely need to work longer hours and possibly for many consecutive days. Mutual aid resources take time to mobilize and may not be available for a few days.
Workers must concentrate on safely performing their job functions in adverse conditions that present unique challenges. Parents must be confident that trusted providers are attending to the needs of their children. A disaster is not the time to have to find a new childcare provider or unnecessarily expose a child to a new caretaker.
If your idea were to become reality, who would benefit the most, and how?
Children of working parents would benefit the most from this proposed amendment to the Stafford Act. Structured routines create stability for children and help them to feel safe in their surroundings. During a disaster, parents will be challenged to continue to provide an environment in which their children feel safe. Working parents will be confronted with difficult choices between their professional and family obligations. Professional-related choices may impact the health and safety of others; family-related ones will impact those for whom the worker cares most.
Enacting legislation to require institutional childcare providers to maintain disaster plans will decrease the disruptions to daily routines experienced by children who are affected by disasters. Developing standards for the services that an institution must be able to provide will help to ensure that children receive the “right” services that will assist them to begin the personal recovery process of reestablishing feelings of safety in their surroundings.
What are the initial steps needed to get the idea off the ground?
To initiate the process for amending the Stafford Act, an interdisciplinary partnership of national stakeholder organizations is needed. The partnership should minimally consist of a child advocacy group, an organization of state and/or local government officials, and an organization that represents one of the emergency service disciplines. Garnering support from the U.S. Department of Education would be beneficial since preparedness requirements for schools will increase, and also the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since they provide expertise on child health and welfare issues. The partnership could conduct a cost/benefit analysis of disaster operations if employees with children come to work and if they stop coming to work. The impacts of separating children from their parents during a disaster must also be assessed. If the benefits outweigh the costs, the partnership must then identify congressional sponsors to champion the issue. [NB: See, especially Recommendation #7 in National Commission On Children And Disasters (NCCD): Interim Report.]
Describe the optimal outcome should your idea be successfully implemented. How would you measure that outcome?
The goal of this idea is to minimize disruption to a child’s routine and sense of security while parents continue to perform critical emergency service relief work after the occurrence of a disaster. Measurements of preparedness activities may include the number of institutions that develop plans containing the required components and policy changes made by institutions related to personal preparedness requirements for staff, children, and parents. The true impact of this proposed legislation would only be realized after a disaster. Post-disaster measures may include the number of residential childcare institutions that remain operational in the days immediately following a disaster, the number of children serviced by these institutions, and the impact that the maintenance of a structured routine has on a child’s ability to cope with and recover from the effects of a disaster.
It is parent – teacher conference week in the town where I live. Our school system is experiencing significant and unusual absenteeism due to what local physicians – somewhat euphemistically — are describing as “flu-like symptoms.” It is an ideal time to be asking schools about their disaster plans.
Here are 10 questions that are worth discussing if you have your own parent-teacher conference coming up — or even if you do not: (adapted from NACCRRA )
Do you have an emergency preparedness plan for disasters that are likely to occur here?
How will you safely evacuate my child to a safe, predetermined location?
How and when will I be notified if a disaster occurs when my child is in your care?
If I cannot get to my child during or after a disaster, how will you continue to care for my child?
Have you received training about how to respond to my child’s physical and emotional needs during and after a disaster?
Will you teach my [older] child what to do during an emergency?
Do you have a disaster or supply kit with enough items to meet my child’s needs for at least 72 hours?
Do relevant emergency management agencies and responders know about your facility and its plans?
How may I help you before, during and after a disaster?
After a disaster occurs, how will I be notified about your plan to reopen?
Among the competing priorities facing teachers, parents, responders, emergency managers, homeland security professional, and public officials, why should the disaster needs of children claim any special attention?
From the NCCD report:
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate invokes an ideal metaphor from his experiences in managing disasters in Florida…– there is no stronger indicator of hope and optimism to a disaster-affected community than to see a yellow school bus making its way down a neighborhood street.