Reuniting With Your ChildPosted on by
Hurricane Katrina hit the southeastern United States on August 29, 2005. This natural disaster led to the largest incident of missing children in US history. Many of these missing children were too young to accurately identify themselves. Parents of missing children were among thousands of people displaced in emergency shelters, some in different states, with limited access to communication channels.
Following Hurricane Katrina, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and disaster relief agencies rapidly coordinated hotlines and reunification efforts. However, there was no formal system to track lost children in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. Some families were reconnected quickly, but many children were missing for weeks. It took 6 months to safely reunite all 5,192 missing children with their families.
In 2006, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA) included plans to better prepare recovery teams to reunify families. The Unaccompanied Minors Registry, an online database of found children, and the National Emergency Child Locator Center were established to aid in reunification efforts following disasters. Social media platforms deployed tracking systems with the hope of reuniting families following natural disasters. These resources are critical following a catastrophic event, but it is also important for communities and families to have a plan in the event of family separation after a disaster.
We spoke with Dr. Sarita Chung, a pediatrician who serves on the Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is an expert on child reunification and gave us some tips for families with children to prepare in the event a child is lost.
- Work with your community to ensure reunification plans are in place and educate residents about how to use the plans and follow protocols in the event of a disaster.
- Many schools and local emergency departments have evacuation and reunification protocols. If your child’s school does not have a plan, consider contacting the school board or local emergency management agency and recommend creating one.
How can parents prepare their children if they get lost?
- It is important for children to know important phone numbers—even if they have a smart phone! Work with your child to practice memorizing important phone numbers. Be sure to include the phone number of an out-of-state relative or friend in the event of a disaster and local phone lines are down.
- Establish a meeting spot with your children in case you get separated at a public event.
- If out in public, always encourage your child to look for someone who is in charge so they can ask someone for help to reach their parents.
Where should a parent start if their child is lost?
- Contact your local law-enforcement agency and give them as much information about your child as possible. Losing your child is every parent’s greatest fear, but it is important to try to remain calm. One study found that during a reunification drill, some parents were so stressed that they missed their child’s photograph in a slideshow of missing children.
- Keep an up-to-date, forward facing photo of your child on your smartphone, on a social media page, and in your wallet. This is especially important if your child is too young to identify themselves or you.
What should you do if you find a missing child?
- Contact law enforcement immediately. Being lost is incredibly stressful for a child, so be sure to attend to the child’s needs and provide realistic distractions to make the child feel safe.
- During a public emergency, the Unaccompanied Minors Registry allows you to report a found child and aid in reunification efforts. If you are unable to report an unaccompanied minor online and/or with local law enforcement, you can contact NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).