Federal legislation sponsored by a bipartisan team that includes one lawmaker from Louisiana would establish a unique framework to care for young children before, during and after natural disasters. The proposed Child Safety, Care and Education Continuity Act is the culmination of two months of research and hearings conducted by U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. Landrieu says children are naturally the focal point of any family and, in the aftermath of a disaster, parents' primary concern is returning them back to a normal life. "The most important aspect of returning children to their regular routine is getting them back into school or child care," Landrieu says. "Not only does that help children in the aftermath of a disaster, it also allows parents to focus on returning to work and beginning to rebuild." The legislation also incorporates recommendations made by the National Commission on Children and Disasters, which issued a detailed report of its findings in October 2009. "While catastrophes have a profound effect on everyone in the disaster zone, they're particularly traumatic for children," says Mark Shriver, commission chairperson, adding that children are among the "most vulnerable Americans following a disaster."
When it comes to returning children to school, Alexander says the federal government didn't act fast enough after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 for the tens of thousands of children who were displaced. This includes the more than 4,100 children who were temporarily relocated to his home state of Tennessee, Alexander says. During the school year that followed the 2005 hurricane season, LSU's Department of Psychiatry screened 12,000 children, and the findings have been used to help craft the proposed legislation. The LSU research found that 18 percent of the students had a family member who was killed in the hurricane and 49 percent of them met the threshold for a mental health referral.
In a related and more recent study, the Children's Health Fund also found that 28 percent of displaced children in Louisiana are still suffering from depression or anxiety, and 33 percent still exhibit behavioral problems. Additionally, Save the Children, another nonprofit advocacy group, found that only seven states require licensed child care providers to have basic written emergency plans addressing evacuation, reunification and accommodating children with special needs. Some of these issues were initially addressed when Congress incorporated aid to the Gulf Coast into the Deficit Reduction Act, which was signed into law almost six months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The programs expired after just one year, but Landrieu says her bill will reauthorize some of those programs, as well as several new measures, to ensure the federal government has a framework in place to help children and families regain some normalcy in the event of a future catastrophic disaster.
The bill also:
• Provides tuition reimbursements to elementary and secondary schools that take in displaced students.
• Eases financial aid regulations on students attending institutions of higher education that are unable to operate after a disaster.
• Provides mental health counseling for pre-K students through Head Start agencies.
• Requires that the Department of Health and Human Services and individual states work together to develop plans to ensure displaced children have access to medical care.
• Increases access to child care services for disaster-affected families through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program.
• Requires child care centers that receive federal funding through that program to develop emergency plans for evacuation, reunification, special needs and temporary operating standards. — Jeremy Alford