I. Why Must the Needs of Children Come First?
Joy Peacock
 
A. Why Is This Issue Important?
Although Hurricanes Katrina and Rita crashed into the Gulf Coast more than eight months ago, images of frightened children are still vivid. Day after day, we saw children being airlifted from rooftops and from flooded streets. In some cases, it took months before these children were finally reunited with their families (Shriver, 2006).
Quoted in that same article, Special Assistant to the President Frances Townsend acknowledged that children were a special segment of the population and were among the most vulnerable in an emergency. How much more vulnerable are children who are wards of the state because they have been abused or neglected? Of the 5,000 children in foster care in Louisiana, nearly 2,000 were displaced by Hurricane Katrina (GAO report, 2006:27). Moreover, many children were visiting noncustodial parents when the hurricane hit over a weekend, and some of the parents evacuated with their children and have not returned, seizing “custody by Katrina” (Vitt, 2006).

The safeguards that Louisiana and Mississippi built into their laws, policies, and procedures did not anticipate the extent of the devastation and could not protect their children from the effects of the hurricanes. Now, a year after the hurricanes, Newsweek (August 2006) reported that Houston was still hosting 150,000 of the 250,000 people who evacuated to that city in September of 2005 and that Atlanta still had 84,000 of the roughly 100,000 people who evacuated there. (In contrast, 93% of the 20,000 people who fled to Birmingham, 83% of the 300,000 people who evacuated to Baton Rouge, and 70% of the 50,000 people who sought refuge in San Antonio have returned home).

Consequently, it is difficult for courts to know if the relocation of children to other states is temporary or permanent, because even the families themselves may not know when they will be able to return home, if ever. In that situation, it is difficult for a court to know when to transfer jurisdiction to a dependency court in another state and when to retain it, expecting the family to return.

Thus, both immediately after the hurricanes and even a year later, many children under court jurisdiction are no longer living within jurisdictions of those courts. They may not be:

• living at home or any other place they know or have been before
• living with the same people before, during, and after the storms
• with or near their parents or siblings
• at their school or with their friends and schoolmates
• able to communicate with teachers, therapists, doctors, or social workers

Professionals serving children and families are familiar with the perspective of trying to view problems “through the eyes of a child.” This perspective is even more important in times of crisis. The “needs of the children” should be kept foremost in all emergency preparedness planning.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) clearly and unequivocally establishes three national goals for children in foster care: safety, permanency, and well-being. These goals assume even more significance in times of emergency.

Safety is the paramount concern that must guide all child welfare services. No child should be subject to maltreatment while in placement and should be maintained in their homes whenever safety is not an issue. Safety of children is in more jeopardy during times of crisis where they may not be in the homes of parents, relatives, or foster parents, but in shelters or even on the streets or other locations where they may be in danger.

Permanency is achieved when children are returned to their families, without further court supervision; when children are adopted; or when children are placed with individuals who are their permanent guardians (42 U.S.C. Sec 675(5)(c)). Courts are empowered to remove children from home if they are in danger of harm, but also have other alternatives, including removing the alleged perpetrator and placing the child with members of the extended family (Guidelines for Public Policy, op. cit., IV-11). It may be more difficult to reunite children with their families during times of crisis, and time in foster care may be extended longer than would be normal in a noncrisis situation.

Well-Being refers to factors other than safety and permanency that relate to a child’s current and future welfare—most notably, the child’s educational achievement and mental and physical health. ASFA well-being outcome goals are:

1. Families have enhanced capacity to provide for their children’s needs
2. Children receive appropriate services to meet their educational needs
3. Children receive adequate services to meet their physical and mental health needs

To the extent that courts have the responsibility to make sure that the state is providing proper care to children in its custody, it is imperative for courts to know whether those children over whom they have jurisdiction are physically and emotionally healthy. This too becomes more difficult in times of crisis.

In the event of an emergency, the first priority is to ensure the safety of court personnel and those who use the courts, including children and families. The second priority is to restore essential court services as quickly as possible. Immediately after an emergency, children need to return quickly to a safe, stable, and permanent living situation. The more change during a crisis, the more difficult it becomes for children to cope. With respect to dependency courts, the ideal would be to maintain the same judge, court personnel, attorneys, and child welfare agency contacts with whom the child is familiar.


 

B. Suggestions and Considerations
The most important consideration is the need for judicial leadership. Along with their counterparts in child welfare agencies, courts need to play a leading role in safeguarding the welfare of children.

1. Consider using court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteers to locate children. Louisiana officials had to contact Red Cross shelters before entering to search for foster children. CASAs were effective in the disaster because they had ongoing permanent relationships with CASAs in other states. Therefore, they are a pool of people already screened and trained and so could be used to exchange information and locate children.

2. Have shelters automate lists of residents to facilitate locating children, reuniting children with families or foster families.

3. Have child care available at all emergency assistance centers. Parents need to have the opportunity to apply for emergency assistance and to receive information secure in the knowledge that their children are safe and cared for.

4. Visit children displaced to other locations. Children evacuated out of the danger zone are still interested in what happened to their family, friends, schoolmates, and neighborhood. A visit to update them on the situation reduces anxiety and shows that people care about what happens to them.

5. Make agreements on health care coverage part of interstate compacts. Families displaced to other states found that their medical coverage plans were state specific and insurance or health cards were not honored by other systems.