Commission reviews child safety during disasters

Tuesday - 11/16/2010, 9:41am EST

Mark Shriver, Chairman, National Commission on Children and Disasters

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

The federal government has a specific role to play when responding to a national disaster. The Commission on Children and Disasters wants to make sure that the government's work doesn't overlook helping children in an emergency.

Their role, chairman Mark Shriver told Federal News Radio the commission wants to make sure that the unique needs of kids are met following a disaster "like a hurricane, and earthquake or even a terrorist attack."

Even five years after lessons were learned during Hurricane Katrina, said Shriver, "there's better planning and protection for dogs and cats than for protecting children" during a disaster.

According to a report released by the commission in May, "twelve states have minimal protections in place to protect kids at child care facilities and at schools. Maryland meets all four of those minimum standards, the District meets three of the four, and Virginia only meets two of the four."

The bottom line said Shriver, is that "governments are not doing what's necessary to protect children in planning for a disaster, in responding to a disaster, and then in the long-term recovery and that's what the commission's mandate is: is to expose those gaps and propose solutions so that the government at all levels can ensure the protection of its most vulnerable and smallest citizens."

In the report presented a report to the President and Congress last month, said Shriver, the commission called on the president "to develop a national strategy on children in disasters, on the Department of Education to put more funding into disaster planning for schools. We should be doing a better job, obviously, with childcare facilities are safe."

Progress has been made in shelter design and the supplies going to shelters, said Shriver. Baby wipes are an example. Families were running out of supplies in the first 24 to 48 hours. Now that shelters know to plan for families and their needs, children can be sheltered as long as adults with the proper planning.

Shriver said there hasn't been a strong enough focus on the needs of children when it comes to disaster planning. "Kids are not little adults," said the chairman, and planners must be aware "that they have different needs."

The commission has recommended four basic requirements:

  1. An evacuation plan is in place,
  2. Reunification plan in place,
  3. Special needs are addressed, and for
  4. K-12, multi-hazard planning is in place.

So, for instance, if you live in Virginia and you drop your child off at a childcare facility in the morning and you drive into the District, do you know if that childcare facility, if a dirty bomb were to hit DC, does that childcare facility have an evacuation route to get your child to a safe place and a plan to reunify you or one of your relatives with your child if something were to happen to you. If your child has special needs, is that taken into account? The states have that role, but on the other hand, the federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year on childcare vouchers, and they could mandate that those childcare vouchers go to facilities, and that those facilities as a result of getting those federal dollars, should have these requirements in place.

The biggest challenges, said Shriver, is are awareness and getting up to speed on disaster plans.

"The rules got changed down in Mississippi, which is obviously a disaster-prone area," said Shriver, "and the state legislature down there just said 'look, we never even thought about children's needs.' And they implemented that bill that meant Mississippi met all four of those requirements and they've taken those proactive steps, but they just never thought about kids needs and we see that consistently on the federal and state level."