Commission calls for more attention to kids’ needs following disasters

As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, an independent, bipartisan commission is urging federal agencies to improve coordination in the aftermath of disasters to ensure children's needs are met.

The National Commission on Children and Disasters earlier this week approved more than 100 recommendations to federal, state and local governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations. Among them, the commission suggested the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its parent Homeland Security Department reach agreements with other federal agencies to offer state and local entities such as school systems and child care facilities technical assistance and other resources. Agencies that DHS and FEMA could consider working with include the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Education Department, and the Administration for Children and Families' Child Care Bureau, the commission concluded. It also advised FEMA and DHS to do a better job of sharing critical information on children's recovery services with relevant entities.

The recommendations will be included in the commission's final report to Congress and President Obama, due on Oct. 14. Many of its members, including Chairman Mark Shriver, vice president and managing director for the independent organization Save the Children, expressed their frustration over agencies' progress.

"When we have another disaster, we won't be able to take care of our kids," Shriver said in an interview with Government Executive. "Political leadership often says children are our most valuable resource, but the lack of investment in children tells a different story."

Chris Revere, executive director of the commission, noted in an interview that programs that benefit children are competing for "dollars and attention." Limited improvements in areas such as pediatric medical care, disaster mental health research and emergency preparedness can be attributed partly to "benign neglect," Shriver added. "Nobody has malicious intention, but they are not focused on children's needs."

The panel found that only 14 states require day care facilities to establish evacuation and relocation plans, and only 6 percent of hospitals carry the pediatric equipment necessary in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Despite its gloomy assessment, the commission did acknowledge some advances. Revere and Shriver applauded FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate for making children's issues a priority. Fugate created a working group at FEMA to identify and reorient policies that don't consider children's needs. He accomplished this without going to Congress or obtaining extra funding, Revere added.

During the commission's meeting on Monday, Fugate said he also will create a permanent position within the Administrator's Office to assure the needs of children remain an agency-wide area of focus. FEMA will consider expanding this role, perhaps to positions within its regional offices.

The Health and Human Services Department is following FEMA's lead. HHS now has its own working group dedicated to including children in its policies. During the commission's meeting, HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Nicole Lurie said, "We're working pretty hard to catch up with FEMA." Children make up 25 percent of the U.S. population. Revere said failure to include children in a national disaster management strategy could bring "intergenerational consequences" and contribute to prolonged economic and mental health issues for children and families, as witnessed on the Gulf Coast following Katrina.

Shriver called the commission's attention to a somber Aug. 23 USA Today article about a recent study co-authored by member Irwin Redlener. The study found thousands of children still suffer from emotional disturbances resulting from displacement after Katrina.

The commission was established under the provisions of the 2007 Kids in Disasters Well-being, Safety and Health Act and has 10 members; former President George W. Bush, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, each appointed two commissioners to the panel.

Though this is slated to be the panel's final report, Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., in May introduced the 2010 National Commission on Children and Disasters Reauthorization Act to amend the original statute and provide funding for the commission through fiscal 2013. The proposed legislation passed the House and was referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

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