Five years after Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana remains unprepared to protect children in the event of a natural disaster, according to a new report issued by Save the Children
, the non-profit relief organization. The report, which the group published last week
, revealed that Louisiana child care centers and public schools do not have plans in place to evacuate children, notify families of their children's location, or care for children with special needs during a crisis.
The report is the second from Save the Children on the nation's readiness to protect children in disasters; the findings in Louisiana are most troubling because more than 5,000 children were separated from their families in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to its findings in Louisiana, the report revealed that only twelve states met the group's basic standards for protecting children -- an increase from five states last year.
Trey Williams, the communications director at the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, which oversees the state's child care centers, conceded that Save the Children's initial report had found legitimate problems, but he maintained that the state was in good shape overall.
"Facing disasters in Louisiana is something that we're prepared for," Williams said. "It's something that we've spent a lot of time on throughout the year, and so we think we are prepared should a disaster come."
Louisiana is currently revising its standards for child care centers, and if the state approves the changes -- which include mandating written disaster plans for child care centers, as well as parental notification plans -- Williams predicted they would go into effect by early 2011.
But the pace of change, explained Mark Shriver, the managing director of U.S. programs for Save the Children, has been too slow.
"Parents in this country and in Louisiana assume that when they drop their kids off, the kids have a plan that is going to keep them safe in that facility," Shriver said. "Louisiana and other states have not done enough, fast enough to ensure that children are safe in child care facilities. And to say that there's a bureaucracy or that it takes time is outrageous."
The report also focused on children in public schools. In New Orleans, 100 of the city's 128 public schools were either damaged or destroyed. The city's education system has since undergone almost a complete reorganization, with many public schools converting to independently governed charter schools. The Louisiana Department of Education, as well as the Louisiana Superintendent's Office, did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this article.
The lack of comprehensive child safety regulations prompted Sen. Mary Landrieu last year to propose the Child Safety, Care, and Education Continuity Act, which would require all states to meet standards similar to the regulations spelled out in the report. The bill, which is still pending in Congress, would also assist with providing health care and education to children in states affected by a presidentially-declared disaster.
The report comes as hurricane season is setting in and as Louisiana continues to reel from the fallout of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to Louisiana, the hurricane-prone states of Texas, Mississippi, and Florida also failed to meet many of the Save the Children standards.
The blame for the lack of readiness around the country, Shriver explained, was both a problem at the state and federal level. "There's plenty of blame to go around, but the bottom line is that for too long, kids have suffered benign neglect when it comes to their safety," Shriver said. "We all need to do a better job: the state governments, the federal government, and the non-profits."