Children have ongoing needs that must be addressed by their parents or other caregivers. This is especially true in an emergency or disaster when children will require direct supervision, assistance with feeding, and protection from hazards. A critical issue in disaster planning is family reunification. Reunifying unaccompanied minors and separated or missing children with their parents or legal guardians in the aftermath of a disaster is critically important. Accomplishing this goal requires collaboration across various sectors.
Clearly, there would be less disruption if the separation of children from their parents or guardians could be prevented. This is challenging, since many children are naturally separated from their families when they attend child care or school. Having plans in place in advance of a disaster for keeping children and their families together or accelerating reunification remains a significant priority. Steps have been taken to increase the preparedness of communities to reunify children with their families in the event of a disaster, but there is more work to do to help hospitals and communities with reunification planning.
Child care facilities should have a written emergency/disaster plan that identifies:
Schools/School Districts should develop and maintain written disaster plans and processes that:
Address procedures for lockdown, shelter-in-place, evacuation, relocation, and reuniting students with their parents or legal guardians.
Assist with the establishment of relationships. Schools should consider sharing their emergency preparedness plans with first responders and/or local emergency managers to better coordinate overall reunification efforts in the event of a large-scale or catastrophic incident.
Consider the needs of children and youth with special health care needs.
Include plans for communicating with families in the event of a disaster.
Hospitals/Communities should have a written plan to support family reunification. See Family Reunification Following Disasters: A Planning Tool for Health Care Facilities. This tool provides planning assistance for hospitals as they create plans to provide information, support services, and safe reunification assistance to family members of patients who have experienced disasters. This tool also offers examples of solutions to challenges presented during hospital family reunification efforts.
Families can improve their preparedness before the next disaster strikes to accelerate reunification with their children in a disaster. Pediatricians can encourage families to develop a family emergency plan using the recommendations in the AAP Family Readiness Kit. A family emergency plan will include important information, such as critical medical information, emergency contacts and phone numbers, and multiple meeting places. Parents should seek information from their child's school, caregiver, or child care facility to learn about reunification plans and how they will be notified in a disaster.
Disaster Planning that Prevents Separation of Families
During a disaster, there is an increased possibility for children to become separated from their parents or legal guardians. Being separated from family during or after an emergency can have lasting mental and physical effects on children. The faster children are reunited with their family, the better their outcomes will be.
Children should not be separated from their families or caregivers to the maximum extent possible in a disaster, such as during evacuation, transport, sheltering, or the delivery of other services.
Children should, if at all possible, be transported with at least 1 parent or caregiver during evacuation of medical facilities. In addition, this transportation and care must be coordinated so that patients are moved to facilities with appropriate pediatric resources, whether they are evacuated from field providers, inpatient units, or specialized advanced facilities (such as pediatric or neonatal intensive care units). Child passenger safety recommendations should be followed.
If separation was unavoidable, children should be reunited with their families or caregivers as soon as possible. Communications about the child's care must be maintained between medical providers and patients' families or guardians.
Post-Disaster Reunification of Children
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers the Post-Disaster Reunification of Children: A Nationwide Approach guide to provide an overview of the coordination processes necessary to reunify unaccompanied minors with their parents or legal guardians following a large-scale disaster, and the How Do I Find My Family? Web page which offers reunification systems and communications options for the public.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) assists families to reconnect and rebuild after reunification. When children are recovered, many families need assistance reintegrating them back into the home. Families in financial need may qualify for transportation at no cost to them once their children are found. The NCMEC can also help families find therapists who are available during every stage of reconnecting and rebuilding.