Reuniting With Your Child

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Small girl sitting on a tram platform with her toy teddy bear

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.

How can families work with their community to be prepared?Little boy hugging his dad

  • 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).
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6 comments on “Reuniting With Your Child”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Are there local professionals from the CDC or partnering agencies familiar with PKEMRA and the events pertaining to re-uniting children with their families that can give an in-person presentation on this?

    Thank You.

    I have CERT training and also serve in the COPS program. This information is something that needs to be shared. Significant emergencies arise on rare occasions. A family or good friends need to put some type of plan like this in place in their lives. My hope is that no one ever needs to use. In a perfect world that might happen. this is not a perfect world. Those that have a plan like this in place may be fortunate enough to protect themselves from intense emotional distress.

    I am executive director of a small nonprofit, Neighbors Helping Neighbors SF Bay Area. We organize many events monthly and recruit adults and children to volunteer. Annually we have hundreds of both adults and children who volunteer. NHN is very strict about volunteers’ s sign up must include full names of adults and children, address/cell number plus, local emergency contact. In case, disaster or emergencies happen during any of our events we have hard copy and electronic contact information for all volunteers. During check in for our events, it’s astounding how many volunteers will fill out only partial contact information on time sheets. Our greeters and core team spend some time educating parents and other adults the importance of being prepared and safety.
    NHN although we have not had to implement our emergency plan. Some of our NHN core team members (CERT and other advance trained) have had to activate emergency disaster plan. When we held another type of leader roles on our block where we lived. In 2012, there was a pool chemical explosion at two large apartment buildings where we lived. Only four of 500+ people were injured including one fireman.
    During and post incident, we did mental health assessments . Then up to 60 days post incident we followed up with our neighbors. Of course with help of Red Cross. It’s interesting that some adults continued to have signs and symptoms of trauma and mild to severe stress. While all 50 children showed normal behavior . And the older children even showed interest and curiosity at being part of the emergency plans on going. Several Teens joined the blocks’ two way radio training and drills.
    We believe the children had a better outcome than some adults because they were made to feel safe during and post disaster/emergency.
    I encourage every nonprofit to form an emergency plan. We hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

    This event is really near and dear to me. I am from Louisiana and was in high school when Katrina hit. Many families were relocated to northern Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. I never realized how many children were missing and for so long. six months with your child missing had to have been the scariest feeling in the world. The blog states all the missing children were reunited with there families. A lot of people would not have been trapped, flooded out, or missing if they would have evacuated. However since they did not extra measures should have been taken in the even of an emergency. Family members could have been marked or tagged with a waterproof bandage of a phone number, or putting copies of phone numbers, pictures with names of all those who were in that party in a sip lock bag or other waterproof bag and placed into a zipped pocket of each person. If financially able, buy an air mattress, along with swimming floaties and inner-tubes and ropes to tie the floats together. Each person should also be connected by tying rope around everyone’s waist, that way of someone falls behind or falls off they can be pulled back in or at least kept close by. Families will need to create a light weight portable emergency kit. This kit should include water, pedialyte, ensure, flashlight,batteries, small portable waterproof radio and walkie talkies. It should also include flares, whistles, thin, lightweight food in a package, such as tuna in a pouch, even a small backpack can carry several. Since many disasters are not preventable, each family should also prepare and practice before a disaster happens. This should include having all the emergency bags packed and ready. I suggest offering community fairs to teach the importance of being prepared and following warning. Many people think it wont happen to me but, nature does not discriminate!!

    I remember this horrible day. As a parent I would of been devastated to have to go through this. When my son was in preschool we always thought him basic information like my cell number, our names. It’s harder to do this with younger children. I am glad they have better avenues now for people to find their lost children. This is a nightmare I hope I never have to experience. Families should start early just in case. I always keep tons of can foods available, manual can openers, flash lights, candles, bottled waters. My family think I’m crazy but it is always good to be prepared for the unknown.

    As a nurse I believe all families should start preparing children from an early age about important things as their phone number, full name of themselves as well as their parents. If they are old enough they should try and teach an address. I am so glad there are more protocols placed on locating a lost child. No one wants a repeat of this tragic event.

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Page last updated: April 12, 2016