Changes for children suggested

National Commission’s recommendations focus on needs of children during disasters.

BY ZACHARY HOFFMAN | WASHINGTON, DC | September 20, 2009



"Child neglect is generally not intentional. . . Parents are left thinking about food, clothing and shelter and whether they still have a job to provide clothing, food and shelter."

—Judy Bezon, Children’s Disaster Services


Children make up nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population, but during disasters, emergency managers are required to meet the needs of pets -- not children. Instead, children are grouped in special needs categories with the elderly and disabled.

The National Commission on Children and Disasters teamed up with faith-based response organizations, federal agencies and non-profits to draft an interim report to address the needs of children in disasters and to form emergency plans around them.

The Church of the Brethren Children’s Disaster Services were a part of a subcommittee that contributed to the sheltering portion of the interim report and have seen the neglect of children following disasters first hand.

“Child neglect is generally not intentional,” said Judy Bezon, associate director of the Children’s Disaster Services (CDS). “Parents are left thinking about food, clothing and shelter and whether they still have a job to provide clothing, food and shelter.”

Sometimes, she explained, the process of disaster recovery, needs assessments, shelters, monetary grants and general paperwork occupy parents’ time and overshadow the needs of their children.

“At the same time we’re supporting the children, we’re supporting the parents and the family because if they are living in a shelter they get a break and know that their children are safe with us,” Bezon said.

The Church of the Brethren’s Children’s Disaster Services was created in 1980 and is the oldest organization of its kind, having served more than 83,000 children in 202 disasters each of whom have received special counseling through playing and simply being children.

In the interim report, the Commission identifies areas to improve disaster assistance for children and, with the help of subcommittees formed by federal and non-profit disaster response organizations, wrote recommendations designed to improve care for children.

"The most vulnerable Americans in the most vulnerable settings are made even more vulnerable by government inaction," said Mark Shriver, Chairperson of the Commission in a press release. "Disasters don't strike on government's timetable which means the time for government to act is now."

“Everyone points to Katrina and lessons learned from Katrina,” said the Commission’s Vice-Chairperson, Dr. Michael Anderson. “(But) you see time and time again that when people look at disaster assistant plans, the needs of children are not met.”

“Terrorist events such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the unprecedented nature of the September 11, 2001, attacks signaled a new era in global and domestic terrorism, which deeply affected children. 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 everyday events, let alone an event of catastrophic proportions,” said the Commission’s report.

The thought of a huge natural or technological disaster striking the United States and institutions not being prepared for the needs of children is an idea that is ever present in the minds of Anderson and other members of the Commission.

The next step is to try to use what has been learned so far to construct emergency plans for children and to continue to work on issues that have not been addressed.

“The next 12 months is going to be really busy for us, our goal is not to just simply write this report, we need to implement it pronto,” said Anderson.

“Hurricane season is upon us, it is really important that we are ready,” said Anderson. “The sheltering guidelines are really important and requiring juvenile justice facilities and day care centers to have disaster plans is very important.”

According to the Commission’s report, a national disaster recovery strategy that benefits children would ensure:

  • Access to appropriate crisis, bereavement and mental health services;

  • Academic continuity and immediate educational access by enrolling and placing disaster-affected children in educational and related services in compliance with The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act;

  • Priority for families with school-aged children, especially for those families with children having special health, mental health or educational needs, for disaster housing assistance and permanent housing; and

  • The provision of developmental and age-appropriate play and recreation options, particularly quality day care and after-school services.


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