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Children and Disasters: Recognizing a Unique Need

by Carol Apelt on Nov 21, 2016 4:24:37 PM

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To spotlight the importance of addressing the specific needs of children before, during and after disasters, Intermedix is beginning a series to encourage awareness of this critical topic. Children represent almost one quarter of the American population and can be significantly impacted by disasters and traumatic events. This series will discuss a variety of issues, strategies and developments relating to children and disasters, with the goal of providing emergency managers with valuable tools and knowledge to plan effectively for America’s most vulnerable.

Hurricane Katrina revealed much about our nation’s ability to respond to disasters. While we witnessed the remarkable willingness of Americans to open their hearts by generously giving their time and resources to help those impacted, the aftermath of Katrina also bared an ugly truth: the U.S. was woefully unprepared to address the unique needs of children during and after such an event. From infants to adolescents, and every age in between, children comprise nearly 23 percent of the American population. Historically, however, few emergency plans have included child-specific planning or preparations. Children were considered a “special needs” population, lumped collectively in with the elderly, physically or developmentally disabled, non-English speakers and other groups with dramatically different sets of needs.

As a society, we tend to think of children as little grown-ups: they’re us, only smaller, and therefore they need the same things we do, just in proportionally smaller amounts. Unfortunately, this is a dangerously false assumption. Children are physiologically distinct, reacting to chemical substances and medicines in uniquely different ways than adults. Their breathing rate is faster, ensuring that airborne toxins are inhaled at a much more rapid rate. Also, depending on the child’s age, there are key areas of the brain that have not yet developed, which means they are not yet fully equipped to mentally process traumatic events or the emotions that such events cause, which can significantly impact a child’s long-term mental health and well-being. It is therefore critical that disaster management teams firmly understand these limitations and prepare for the challenges that addressing children’s needs present. When not adequately understood or prepared for, the improper handling of a child’s physical and mental reality can have a significant negative impact on their lives for decades to come.

Following Katrina, Congress began to recognize that the needs of children were not receiving sufficient attention before, during and after manmade and natural disasters. In 2008, Congress acted to address this, creating the National Commission on Children and Disasters. The Commission’s mandate was to assess the needs of children relative to the preparation for, response to and recovery from all hazards, a very broad directive when one considers the significant differences between the needs of an infant, a 10 year old and an 18 year old. The Commission provided its final report to the President and Congress in October 2010, recounting findings and offering detailed recommendations on a wide array of topics, including pediatric shelter supplies, medical care, emergency housing, mental health, school preparedness and more. Overall, the Commission delivered 31 recommendations and more than 80 specific supportive actions for the President’s and Congress’s consideration.

The Commission was dissolved following the submission of its report, but many organizations have continued to bang the drum in support of its recommendations. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established the National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters. Chaired by Dr. Michael Anderson, the former vice-chairman of the Commission, the Committee “provide[s] advice and consultation to the Secretary on comprehensive planning and policies to meet the unique health needs of children before, during, and after” disasters. Additionally, Save the Children has continued to advocate for the Commission’s 2010 recommendations, releasing in 2015 a report entitled “Still at Risk: U.S. Children 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina,” characterized as a report card on the progress of the U.S. and states toward meeting the Commission’s recommendations. Their verdict? Progress has been made, but significant gaps remain.

This article begins an ongoing series on issues relating to children and emergency management. Upcoming topics include specific areas of focus, such as psychological first aid or pediatric sheltering considerations, and will shine a spotlight on the National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters. Future discussions will also highlight practical matters, including the building and maintenance of effective coalitions.

Disclosure: article author Carol Apelt, Vice President, Federal Client Services for Intermedix, served as a Designated Federal Official to the National Commission on Children and Disasters. Additionally, Gregg Lord, Intermedix’s Vice President, Emergency Management Services, served as a Commissioner on the National Commission on Children and Disasters.

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This post was written by Carol Apelt

Carol Apelt is the Vice President of Federal Client Services at Intermedix. Before joining Intermedix, Carol was the Director of Operations at the American Conservative Union; she has also served in key roles at the National Disaster Medical System, the National Commission on Children and Disasters, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. She is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and holds an MA from George Mason University.

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