November 26, 2008

Thank You For Reuniting Us with Our Children

By Donal Brown
New America Media

Editor’s Note: One of the few success stories that came out of the Hurricane Katrina disaster came from the work of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which helped reunite 1,286 children with their families.

As families give thanks for their loved ones during the holidays, the stories of parents and children who were separated – for up to six months – during the Hurricane Katrina disaster is a reminder to undertake proper disaster preparation at all times.

On Nov. 8, 2005 – nearly two and a half months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 – there were still 1,286 children yet to be united with family members. But by 2006, every single one of the children had been found – the last on March 16, 2006.

Father Finds Displaced Son in San Diego With Help of Child Services Worker

After Hurricane Katrina, Jamal’s father became concerned about his 13-year-old son, who lived in Gretna, Louisiana, with his grandmother. The tiny community was slammed by the storm and as an evacuee to the Convention Center in Houston himself, it was very difficult for Jamal’s father to find out if his son was okay. He talked to a child protective services worker who called NCMEC’s hotline to ask for help. Jamal’s grandmother was located at a church shelter, but she had also become separated from the boy and did not know where he was. After the search for Jamal was publicized, his mother phoned the NCMEC hotline to report he was safe with her in San Diego, where an apartment had been donated to the family.

Much of the credit for the remarkable accomplishment of locating these children goes to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). But Ernie Allen, CEO of NCMEC, said the media gave invaluable service to the cause.

“I think it was the media’s finest hour,” said Allen.

The separation usually stemmed from parental panic during the chaos of rescue, Allen said. Parents would load children onto rescue helicopters first, but found themselves in a nightmare situation when they realized that they had no idea where their children were and had no way to contact them to find out if they were safe. It was common for children to end up in shelters hundred of miles away from their parents.

Allen said the NCMEC set out to reunite families through two methods, old-fashioned shoe-leather work and spreading the word through the media. The NCMEC assembled “Team ADAM” – all retired law enforcement officers – some who volunteered and some who were compensated, to go into shelters in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to gather information. They set up a special Katrina hotline on their Web site and took calls from the public. The Web site was soon overwhelmed with hits, up to 20 million a day. Allen appealed to Sun Microsytems which – in one day – delivered a high-end server to manage the volume.

CNN did daily interviews with reporters on the scene featuring the stories of several lost children. The news channel also ran photos of missing children during regular programming.

At least 28 Internet sites were devoted to uniting families. The New Orleans Agenda, a network of about 50 African-American community, business and religious leaders, used their online newsletter to send informative and encouraging e-mail messages to subscribers who used the site to reconnect with loved ones.

The efforts of the media paid off. Even People Magazine got into the act. They published a story about a two-year-old girl in a shelter in Mississippi. They did know her last name, but after the story of “Kalite Unknown” ran, a caller from California said she had seen a woman in Houston on CNN looking for her daughter with that same unusual name. Kalite and her mother were reunited in Houston.

Allen said a member of Team ADAM was taking a photo of another two-year-old girl who was so traumatized that she could not give any information about herself or her family. On a hunch, the investigator held up the digital image of herself and the girl said, “That’s Gabby.” A search of the database revealed that there was a mother searching for a Gabrielle Alexander. Soon after, the mother and child were reunited in San Antonio.

Many times, it was just normal, painstaking police work that reunited families. In one instance, all they knew about the parents of a child was that they were in a hotel in Houston. Team ADAM went to every hotel in the city to examine the registers until they located the parents.

Seven-year-old Calvin was staying with his great-grandmother in New Orleans when Katrina hit. During evacuation, she left the boy with a friend of the family. The boy ended up in Houston, where investigators traced him to an elementary school through enrollment records. Calvin’s mother, who was in temporary housing, asked NCMEC to take him to Atlanta where he could attend school and live with his grandmother and other family members.

After Katrina, the federal government designated NCMEC as the national emergency child location center. Their success continued during Hurricane Ike when they reunited 20 children with their families.

On their Web site, NCMEC advises parents about how to ensure that their children are secure in case of terrorist attack or natural disaster. Parents should always know where their children are, and when disaster strikes, keep family members together. Parents should carry photos of children with them at all times in case of emergency – and especially when they evacuate. They should also give children identification information including name, birth date, addresses and phone numbers. With younger children, it might be wise to write the information on the child’s body in indelible marker.

Parents should e-mail digital photos of all family members to their extended family and friends and advise the children about what to do should the family be separated.

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