Children Overlooked During Disasters, Report Says

Nonprofit organization Save the Children commissioned a report that included a national report card of how well individual states meet children's needs during a disaster.

by / June 25, 2009
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The last decade has been one of catastrophic disasters, including the terror attacks of 9/11; wildfires in California; school shootings at Virginia Tech and others; the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota; hurricanes Rita, Katrina, Ike and Gustav; tornadoes; new disease outbreaks; and the worst recession since the 1930s.

Through it all, there has been one population that has been being overlooked, according to Mark Shriver, the managing director of U.S. programs at Save the Children, a nonprofit organization. "It has been a 'disaster decade,' and we have not taken into account the unique needs of children who make up 25 percent of the population."

According to Shriver, state and federal regulations have addressed the needs of dogs and cats better than they have addressed the needs of children following natural and man-made disasters. "I think when you have children categorized as an at-risk population that is not sufficient," Shriver said. "As Craig Fugate, the administrator at [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], was quoted in the paper a few days ago as saying, 'Children are not little adults.' For too long we've looked at children as little adults for their needs."

The report, The Disaster Decade: Lessons Unlearned for the United States, commissioned by Save the Children and conducted by Brown, Berkley and Tucker, found that children were not counted as a population with unique needs and this puts them at risk.

According to the report, children are only sometimes counted separately from adults in shelters and families are rarely separated from the rest of the population in shelters. The report noted that convicted sex offenders are only asked to self-report when entering a shelter. "Following Hurricane Ike, it was reported that at one shelter alone, 35 sex offenders self-reported. It's likely that many more didn't report, making children in the shelter especially vulnerable," the report's authors wrote.

Included in the report is a report card of how well each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia meet the needs of children. The states were assessed on whether they had four standards in place for child care facilities and kindergarten through 12th grade public schools. Those standards included requiring:

  • child care facilities to have disaster evacuation and relocation plans;
  • child care facilities to have a plan to notify parents during an emergency so families are more easily unified after a disaster;
  • child care facilities to have written plan for accommodating children with special needs; and

"We need to realize that children are not little adults and they have different needs than adults and different requirements should be in place to ensure their safety," Shriver said.

Out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, only seven met all four of the requirements the report called for. Those states were: Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont.

This past year, Save the Children worked with officials in Alabama, Arkansas and Maryland to pass laws providing for children's special needs in disasters.

Children's needs during disasters are not being widely met because they don't have a well organized political voice, Shriver said. "We don't, as a country, focus in on the most-vulnerable populations in the most vulnerable settings," he said. "And that is why they're even more vulnerable today than they ever have been."

In order to adequately address children's needs during disasters, Save the Children called for the federal government to immediately engage in the following five actions:

  • establish national disaster preparedness standards for child care centers and schools;
  • establish an Office of Children's Advocacy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency;
  • make child care centers eligible for federal disaster aid to ensure that they can rebuild and restore services more quickly following a disaster;
  • establish a White House commission on the effects of the recession on children; and
  • create a public awareness campaign to educate families about protecting children during disasters.