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Kids face emotional crisis

Right now - about six months after Hurricane Katrina hit - is when children could start showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

BY SUSAN KIM | PRINCETON, N.J. | March 29, 2006

"Children are not passive in disasters"

—Lori Peek

Right now - about six months after Hurricane Katrina hit - is when children could start showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While psychologists have devoted a good deal of research time and funding to children's issues, kids haven't yet captured much attention from sociologists, said sociologist Lori Peek - and that's a concern.

Peek was part of a team of sociologists that traveled to hurricane-stricken areas and studied children's experiences.

"Groups that are under-studied often become the under-served. We don't know about their needs," said Peek, an assistant professor at Colorado State University.

Peek's research found that the number-one priority for kids is to help them re-establish a sense of routine and normalcy. "But the biggest problem many parents agreed was having to now live in a constant state of flux and uncertainty," she said.

Shelter workers, parents and other adults can help soften the traumatic blow to children in a post-disaster situation, said Peek, but people shouldn't overlook the power of children to help themselves.

"Children are not passive in disasters," she said. "Some of them can minimize their own loss and their own vulnerability. We found that they were writing songs and playing games. Some of them were playing 'evacuation.' They were actually running around the house with garbage bags, loading everything as fast as they could."

But some children aren't likely to just 'bounce back,' pointed out Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison Joann Hale.

"There are kids that have children. Some of them are children themselves - they are under age 18 with children of their own," she said. "That means both the parent and the child could be affected within this population. And so I don't think kids are as resilient as we think they are."

Peek said her research team did talk to many young mothers under the age of 18.

Sometimes a post-disaster situation simply implodes a family, found Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison Heriberto Martinez.

Martinez was helping families at the Astrodome in Texas. "There was a kid there who couldn't find his mother or father. It turns out they just left him right there. They took all their stuff and just left."

The child was turned over to the state social services system, said Martinez. "He is someplace, God knows where. And he isn't the only one. Where are they? What's going to happen to those kids?"

In response to the overwhelming need outlined by Peek and others, faith-based disaster response leaders say they are determined to expand programs for children.

Roy Winter, executive director of the Brethren Service Center, said he hopes to expand the 26-year-old Disaster Child Care program that offers an immediate response to children. Trained and screened volunteers set up a safe space to play, and this allows children to experience some healing right away just after a disaster.

Winter's colleague, Melanie Davis, echoed Winter's determination, saying she has a vision for expanding Camp Noah, a week-long, therapeutic, faith-based day camp.

Davis is director of disaster services for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and a founder of Camp Noah.

Davis said programs such as Camp Noah and Disaster Child Care are effective because they take into account how important play is for children. "At one of our camps in Kansas, the kids in their free time spent an hour replaying their evacuation, just constantly, over and over."

People should understand that kids - even kids from healthy families - will not always readily talk to their parents in a post-disaster situation. "Kids are monitoring their parent's level of anxiety. Many children will not talk to their parents about what's going on with them because they don't want to burden their parents. Kids need more attention and families have less to give. As we grieve, we can bounce back and forth. Kids mirror that. One day we're feeling great and the next we can get set right back."

Six months out from the storm, it's time to turn our attention to the kids, urged Davis. "It's like a death. The first week you get all this attention. Well, now, what are those unmet needs?"

Winter pointed out that many children impacted by Hurricane Katrina were already at risk in some way before the storm even hit. "They were already at-risk populations. They were already coming from poor neighborhoods and single-parent families. We have to begin to create some answers. This is so important. Children are twice as likely to get PTSD as adults. This impacts them dramatically for the rest of their life. It could change their emotional, social and cognitive development. Obviously more work needs to be done. There are all kinds of additional traumatic disasters. Our communities are not ready."

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