Children's Voice July/Aug 2006

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After the Storm

Recovery has been slow, and the needs great, for children and families along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

By Jennifer Michael

In August 2005, Rachelle Daniels was well on her way to permanently making 13-year-old Katie and 2-year-old Nephi part of her family. Having come from a big family, she had long desired children, but, being single, she was the only one of her five brothers and sisters without kids.

When she began foster parenting, Daniels brought two children into her Gulfport, Mississippi, home, but the placements didn't work out. Then siblings Katie and Nephi arrived, and something clicked. Daniels had wanted to care for a sibling group, and Katie and Nephi fit that mold. They also represented other family characteristics Daniels desired--a boy and a girl, an older child and a toddler.

Both children came to Daniels abused and neglected--Nephi (pronounced NEF-eye) was nearly beaten to death at 4 weeks old, and Katie is "environmentally mentally retarded," Daniels says. But working through a number of different therapists, Daniels began to notice both children progress mentally and physically.

Katie and Nephi lived with Daniels for a year and a half before the state terminated their birthmother's parental rights in August 2005. Within days, Daniels completed the paperwork to adopt Katie and Nephi and was working to find an attorney to move adoption proceedings forward when, she says, "the hurricane took over."

Hurricane Katrina blasted through the Gulf Coast on August 29, forever changing the landscape of Mississippi Gulf Coast towns, including Gulfport, and causing levies to overflow and devastate New Orleans.

Katrina blew the back porch off Daniels's home and ripped holes in her roof, but she and the children survived the storm and continued to live in the house with the help of a tarp and a generator, until Hurricane Rita blew through next, damaging the house beyond temporary repair.

Homeless and at risk of losing her foster children, life in the storm's aftermath was overwhelming at first for Daniels, but she has fought to rebuild her home and hang onto the life she started building with Katie and Nephi.

"I wanted to just bury my head in the sand, but when you have two kids looking at you, you have to be there for them," Daniels says. "You have to keep going."

Battered and Scattered

Before the 2005 hurricane season, children and families in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi already faced greater odds of living in poverty than elsewhere in the country. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 21% of Alabama children, 23% of Louisiana children, and 24% of Mississippi children live in poor families, compared with 17% of children nationally.

Katrina and Rita made prospects that much more grim for these children and families to eventually emerge from poverty. The storms left an 80,000-square-mile debris field stretching from the Texas-Louisiana border to the Alabama-Florida border. Months after the storms, those working to pick up the debris continue to face housing and staffing shortages, as well as crippled health care, education, and child care services.

Child and family service providers have been no exception. They've witnessed, first hand, families' struggles to rebuild and relocate, and have scrambled to keep up with their needs. Making matters worse, many organizations and agencies helping families are struggling themselves to repair and staff damaged offices as evacuees begin to trickle home, if at all. And then there's the post-traumatic stress. No one has escaped it, including children, parents, social workers, therapists, and agency executives.

"It's an understatement to say that Hurricane Katrina created multiple hardships for our staff and service population," says Rickie Felder, Director of the Division of Family and Children Services, Mississippi Department of Human Services. "Mississippi lost offices, equipment, and paper case files. In addition, many of our own staff lost their homes."

Louisiana suffered the brunt of the hurricanes, incurring at least 75% of the housing damage from Katrina and Rita, according to Governor Kathleen Blanco (D). The storms stole 1,100 lives, displaced 780,000 people, closed 18,000 businesses, and left 240,000 people unemployed.

Marketa Gautreau, Assistant Secretary of Community Services for the Louisiana Department of Social Services, describes the "new" and "very convoluted" landscape she now works in. As Katrina bore down on Louisiana, 2,000 children in foster care evacuated. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children helped locate all of them within weeks. Six months later, approximately 300 foster children remained out of state. Some birthparents were still missing.

Gautreau explains the daily questions tristate casework raise: "If a [Louisiana foster] family has decided to stay in Minnesota, we now have to decide whether this becomes a Minnesota case or whether we transfer this case to the Minnesota courts and take it off of our courts. But what if the birthparents are in Alabama and they are not ever going to move to Minnesota? Then should it be an Alabama case if the goal is reunification for the child?

"We've never had this before. Our parents have always pretty much been in-state and stayed in state. But because of the evacuation, people are scattered everywhere."

Gautreau says another major issue she faces is how to realign staff in New Orleans and in other areas of the state to where New Orleans residents fled. The Orleans Parish office had been her largest, but post-Katrina "there are no good indicators as to what New Orleans is going to look like. No one has a crystal ball. No one is able to project how many people will really come back to the city."

Meanwhile, she has consolidated staff from Orleans Parish and other damaged offices in the New Orleans area into the East Jefferson Parish office.

"Those who have returned to work are literally doubled, tripled, and quadrupled up and working out of a conference room," she says, "which is certainly not conducive to confidentiality and working with children in crisis."

In New Orleans, overall social and human services had returned to about 20% capacity six months after Katrina. One-third of the approximately 6,500 social workers in Louisiana, for example, lived and practiced in the affected areas, according to Carmen Weisner, Executive Director of the Louisiana chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

Yet "there's nobody who's coming back who doesn't need social services," says Keith Liederman, Executive Director of Kingsley House, a private agency serving children and families in New Orleans.

Six months after Katrina, Kingsley House was serving about a one-third of its normal population of kids. But even with fewer children, their needs--particularly their mental health needs--have been magnified. Yet, only one full-time and one part-time counselor remained on staff, compared with the five counselors Kingsley House employed pre-Katrina.

"Everybody is focusing on adults' mental health issues, but the kids' issues are kind of getting swept under the table," Liederman says, noting that even some of the schools that had reopened in New Orleans were not offering counseling services.

Before Katrina, some 55,000 children attended more than 100 schools in Orleans Parish. In February, 20 Orleans Parish public schools had reopened, with a capacity of about 10,600 students. By Fall 2006, according to Orleans Parish school board member Torin Sanders, approximately 30-40 schools are expected to open in Orleans Parish--about 60% of them to be charter schools--serving some 25,000-30,000 students.

Child care services have also remained depleted. "Folks who have managed to navigate the housing impediments and find jobs can't find child care," explains Judy Watts, President and CEO of Agenda for Children, a Louisiana child advocacy organization.

Before Katrina, 265 licensed child care centers operated in Orleans Parish, compared with 41 earlier this year. Overall, Watts says, the state has lost 341 licensed child care centers and about 400 family child care providers, out of some 2,000 child care centers and 6,800 family child care providers pre-Katrina.

In some Mississippi counties, more than 95% of the child care programs were destroyed, according to the National Association of Childcare Resource and Referral Agencies.

With such basic necessities as schools, child care, and mental health services sharply reduced, Liederman says many people have left New Orleans soon after returning, realizing they can't make a go of it.

Gautreau's out-of-state foster parents have struggled also. Six months after Katrina, the number of foster care disruptions--kids returning to social service offices--were beginning to spike. "Foster care disruptions are increasing with our people out-of-state because they simply can't cope," Gautreau says. "They might have been great foster parents in New Orleans, but they don't have a job, they don't have their home, they don't have all their usual supports, and the added burden of a foster child is just more than they can take."

But in Mississippi, Rachelle Daniels continues to fight to hang on to Katie and Nephi, watching as the walls of their home begin to go up again, and waiting for adoption proceedings to resume.

Making Do With a New Way of Life

Though Daniels still fears losing Katie and Nephi because her home was destroyed, the staff at Mississippi Children's Home Services have supported her and given her additional financial assistance.

Refusing to go to a shelter for fear her children might be harmed if she were to take her eyes from them, even for a moment, Daniels and the children stayed temporarily with her relatives before a 28-foot trailer arrived from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The trailer now sits next to her damaged home and serves as the temporary living quarters for Daniels and the children while her brother-in-law helps rebuild her 1,700-square-foot house.

The sooner the house is rebuilt, the sooner Daniels can complete the home visitation portion of the adoption approval process, and the sooner she can officially call Nephi and Katie her son and her daughter. The FEMA trailer is cramped, leaky, and moldy, but in the end, Daniels said she's just "grateful to be alive."

Daily discomforts prevail in New Orleans as well, Liederman says, where 24-hour reconstruction efforts cause daily traffic backups, and limited store hours and workforce issues create long lines at groceries and restaurants. "The day-to-day grind is tough."

Raintree Children and Family Services, a group home for girls ages 10-18, has reopened its facility in Orleans Parish, and the nine girls in the program have returned from Natchitoches, Louisiana, where they had evacuated. But life is different for them in many ways.

"When we first came back, we tried to prepare them as much as we could [for a different environment]," explains Clinical Therapist Shannon Lovell. "Although our street and the immediate surrounding area of where Raintree is located faired okay and was cleaned up and felt sort of normal, it still really wasn't completely normal. You still saw the military in Humvees going up and down the street throughout the day. You had military carrying weapons. And the kids would ask me, 'Shannon, why do we have these people here.' It made them feel uncomfortable."

The girls have also had to become acquainted with 10 new staff replacements. These staff have to spend more time than usual transporting the girls around the city because public transportation is limited and the schools that are open are scattered citywide. Although Raintree is equipped with water sprinklers and smoke detectors in every room, the staff has to conduct fire checks every two hours, inside the facility and out, as an extra precaution due to inadequate water pressure throughout the city.

With Raintree as one of the few group homes open in New Orleans, 30 girls waited for one of the agency's 10 slots to open last February. Before Katrina, Lovell says, an average 3-10 girls waited for services.

Some bright spots have emerged within New Orleans' social services industry, however. Governor Blanco created the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps (LFRC) to coordinate and deliver comprehensive humanitarian services to displaced citizens throughout the state and to provide opportunities for evacuees to return.

"The Recovery Corps will coordinate the many organizations that want to help our people recover," Blanco said in a press release last fall. "It will be staffed by trained people from within the state who can be sent into the field to work one-on-one with individuals and families affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

The three lead LFRC subgrantees have been Volunteers of America in North Louisiana, Catholic Community Services in Baton Rouge, and the Community-Based Services Network in greater New Orleans--a consortium of agencies that includes Kingsley House, Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America of Greater New Orleans, Children's Bureau, and Family Services of Greater New Orleans.

"We really believe that if we don't partner post-Katrina, we're not going to recover--there's just not enough of us now," Liederman says about the involvement of his agency in the Community-Based Services Network. "Everybody realized there is so much need, we can't just keep working individually."

The Community-Based Services Network, Liederman explains, serves as a type of "preferred provider network" in which a displaced family undergoes the intake process just once, and all of the organizations in the network have access to that family's service plan.

In addition to working with the Community-Based Services Network, Kingsley House opened its Resettlement and Recovery Center this past winter, which has provided door-to-door outreach to hundreds of families, connecting them with needed services, including counseling, child and adult day care, and health care enrollment.

Kingsley House has also leased some of its property, in partnership with the Orleans Parish School Board, to serve as a FEMA trailer site. Ninety trailers are housing social service personnel, public school teachers, and health care staff.

Planning for the Next Big One

"We're altering our disaster planning and preparation in a huge way," Liederman says. In case of future evacuations, his staff is acquiring portable accounting software--the accountant for Kingsley House had to do the staff payroll from memory during the Katrina evacuation--and will take along the computer software necessary to make updates to their website.

Most importantly, all staff and program participants are providing Kingsley House with emergency landline telephone numbers for out-of-state relatives or friends in case of another evacuation. Before Katrina, many people provided emergency cell phone numbers, which were of no use during and after Katrina because cell phone service was out.

Gautreau said her office is also compiling alternate, out-of-state emergency phone numbers for foster families in case of future evacuations, and planning for better communication systems in the event of a storm, such as having satellite phones or walkie-talkies on hand. They are also working on better reunification efforts within shelters, such as computer systems to match up family members more easily, and requiring adults and children to wear armbands with identifying information.

By and large, however, foster families successfully evacuated together during Katrina and eventually connected with the Department of Social Services, Gautreau says. "I kept saying over and over to the national press, 'The system worked.' Our foster families evacuated with their children. They took responsibility for the children in their care, and we found them all relatively quickly. We found 1,500 of the 2,000 in two weeks, and it was simply a matter of getting a phone number that would work."

Still, Gautreau's office was flooded with calls in the weeks following Katrina with offers to adopt children who had lost parents, which surprised Gautreau. "Everybody thought there were going to be all these Katrina orphans, which actually was very interesting to me because I could never figure out where they thought all the adults were going. Did they just think the water was washing away tall people and leaving short people?"

Louisiana's Department of Social Services set up a shelter in Baton Rouge specifically for children, but only 67 children arrived there--most having been disconnected from parents after they were rescued from roof tops. In many cases, the children were sent to the Baton Rouge shelter, while their parents were evacuated to Houston shelters.

Rickie Felder, with Mississippi's Division of Family and Children Services, says his office is also taking a second look at their emergency plan, "We are assessing and developing plans with the Governor's Office and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to address future disasters based on lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina."

Seeking Continued Federal Assistance

Reacting to Katrina and Rita, Congress dedicated more than $85 billion last fall to hurricane recovery, including a one-time, $500 million increase in Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) funding to areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. SSBG is a state-run, flexible funding source that allows for 29 different program, including programs for vulnerable children and youth.

"In the impacted states, we are seeing an infusion of federal and foundation dollars that will indeed help in the short run," says Weisner of NASW's Louisiana chapter. "However, it's the work that lies ahead in the years to come that gives me pause and concern."

Governor Blanco voiced similar concern in a speech to the Louisiana Legislature last February. "The harsh reality is that for many people in Washington, Katrina is yesterday's problem, and Rita never happened."

The Urban Institute is one Washington-based organization that has not forgotten. Last winter, it issued a report outlining the poor conditions in which children and families in New Orleans lived before Katrina, and urging the federal government to commit to a major investment in expanding programs for them.

Urban Institute Senior Fellow Olivia Golden wrote, "Services to young children before Hurricane Katrina were too often mediocre. Since the storm, children's needs are greater and the lack of quality care and services more dangerous."

The one realistic opportunity to make a difference for these children, Golden points out, is through expansion of Head Start and Early Head Start--large-scale programs for poor children that have demonstrated benefits for children and use well-designed program models.

Other national organizations have also raised concerns about the needs of children and families in the post-Katrina landscape. Earlier this year, CWLA, Voices for America's Children, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, and the National Mental Health Association called on FEMA to establish an office that would be responsible for anticipating and meeting the unique immediate and long-term needs of children in times of emergency and recovery.

"We believe the establishment of such an office will better enable the federal government to have a coordinated, high-level response to the needs of children when future manmade or natural disasters occur," says Voices for America's Children President Tamara Lucas Copeland.

The Flip Side of Disaster

Rachelle Daniels knows all too well what it's like to live through a slow recovery process. For her, a new house can't come fast enough. She worries constantly that the state may take the children from her because they continue to live in a trailer--an environment that creates daily challenges in her efforts to raise a toddler and a preteen.

Nephi is "all boy," rambunctious and full of energy, but he has little room in the trailer to play and Daniels can't afford a fence for the yard. He's torn up the blinds covering the trailer windows, and bumped his head badly on the refrigerator door. Daniels is with him all day because she can't return to work as a family child care provider until her house is repaired.

Tight living quarters are also tough when Daniels and Katie get into an argument. "There's no privacy in a camper," Daniels explains. But Katie has been able to return to school, a routine she enjoys, and she has started to pitch in more with chores, such as washing the dishes.

On the bright side, with fewer doors to hide behind, the barriers that existed in Daniels and Katie's relationship before the storms have since vanished.

"[Life after the hurricanes] erased some boundaries and drew us closer," Daniels said. "It brought a lot of people closer."

Jennifer Michael is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

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