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Reuniting families not easy

A mother - eight months pregnant - was reunited with her 3-year-old daughter Monday night two weeks after they were separated during the New Orleans evacuation.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 13, 2005


"We were first introduced to the problem while trying to assist a mother who was housed in one of the many shelters in the rural areas of my husband's legislative district."

—Claudia Adley


A mother - eight months pregnant - was reunited with her 3-year-old daughter Monday night two weeks after they were separated during the New Orleans evacuation.

As a private plane touched down in Texas, and the toddler was handed off the aircraft to her mother, people who witnessed the reunion called it a moment of sheer grace in what has been a long stretch of chaos for that family and for thousands of others in the wake of devastating Katrina.

"The really great news is that the 3-year-old slept the whole way on the plane," laughed Laura Echols-Richter, program minister at the Grace Avenue United Methodist Church, in Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas. "She was asleep when we handed her off to her mom."

A member of the Grace Avenue church is a private pilot. In the past, he has flown missions for Angel Flight, a nonprofit air transportation organization that responds to compelling human needs.

This mission was one he did on his own as soon as the church approached him, said Echols-Richter.

But behind what looks like a simple happy connection, there was an intricate web of communication. Louisiana and Texas state officials, as well as local church members from both states, had to hammer out the details.

Members of Grace Community United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana - through church-by-church connections across state lines - helped locate the young girl, who was at a camp-type shelter near Galveston, Texas. Her mother was staying near Dallas.

But even when both parent and child are located, the law says a child can’t be transported unless escorted by a state child protection officer or a parent, explained Claudia Adley, wife of Louisiana state Sen. Robert Adley. To transport the young girl, they had to abide by that law.

But given that some estimates show at least 1,300 children separated from their parents in the wake of Katrina - some of them several states away from each other - the child protection and escort system could easily become overloaded.

"The state personnel were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of children to be protected and transported," said Adley.

She started to wonder if churches could help. Her husband is also the United Methodist lay leader for northwest Louisiana. "They were meeting to discuss how the church could assist the victims of Katrina," she said. "The need seemed obvious to me. We were first introduced to the problem while trying to assist a mother who was housed in one of the many shelters in the rural areas of my husband's legislative district. She was looking for her 12, 13 and 20-year-old daughters and we attempted to assist. There were approximately 2,500 evacuees who were in shelters not supported by the Red Cross in the five-parish area which makes up my husband's district."

The woman with the three daughters was in a shelter provided by the City of Minden, Louisiana. "The Texas and Louisiana departments of social services worked with me literally day and night to try to locate these children and to get them transported to Louisiana," said Adley. "The First Baptist Church of Minden transported the mother from Minden to the Astrodome to pick up the first child we located. The 20-year-old was ultimately located and reunited with her mother. The 14-year-old was located and is safe with another family but is not yet reunited with the her family."

Adley - after additional discussions with both Louisiana and Texas state officials - now also has the go-ahead for United Methodist churches to pick up parents, transport them to their child, then return both to the parent's location. Families who are separated from their child who is receiving medical care in a hospital will be provided transportation to the location of the hospital. And elderly people separated from their families will be provided transportation to reunite them.

Arrangements will be coordinated through the Louisiana Methodist Storm Recovery Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said Adley. State officials will still be informed and involved in each transport, so that documentation and any state or federal aid can catch up to relocated family members. Adley and others are also working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Fresh from the mother-daughter reunion this week, Echols-Richter said she wants people to know there is a huge connection of hope that is happening across the country right now. "It really does take everyone doing their part," she said. "People are forced to stay separated because of their lack of the ability to communicate. That mother - she's out trying to find housing during the day."

Happy as the reunion was, the mother still has her husband and her 8-year-old child separated from her.

"There's no easy connection," said Echols-Richter, "whether it's e-mail or cell phone or whatever. It's a huge issue right now - people not being able to connect with loved ones. We're trying to bring family members back together and help them build new lives together. People have to remember that the waves of grace are greater than any of the waves of destruction."

Adley added that helping families - one by one - is the goal. "If we successfully transport 1 or 1,000, we will feel blessed," she said.


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