Agencies look for children's lost parents

Katrina's Wake

September 09, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown and Arthur Hirsch | Matthew Hay Brown and Arthur Hirsch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOUSTON - Her age is unknown, but the little girl with the shining eyes appears to be just a toddler. Calvin Collins, big ears and bigger grin, is thought to be 5. Theron Carter, under those long dreadlocks, is all of 10.

Eleven days after Hurricane Katrina roared through their lives, they and other children still are looking for parents or other relatives to claim them.

Many families have been reunited since the storm forced mass evacuations from the Gulf Coast last week. But scores of children who turned up unaccompanied in New Orleans remain unclaimed and, in some cases, unidentified.

With the death toll from Katrina now estimated to be well into the thousands, and Internet searches for surviving relatives coming up empty, at least some of them are likely to have been orphaned. Spread among shelters from Alabama to Texas, some already are being placed in foster homes, from which they could eventually be adopted by new families.

Lee Reed, a consultant with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who now is working at the Reliant Park shelter complex in Houston, is confident that the majority of children will be reunited with relatives. But in some cases, he said, making such connections might prove impossible.

"This is a unique situation not only for us, but for the United States," he said.

At the cavernous convention hall at the Reliant Center, where Harris County was housing 4,500 storm evacuees yesterday, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has cordoned off a section for children who have turned up alone.

Amid boxes of diapers, baby formula and toys, investigators from the Houston Police Department and representatives of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children interview the newcomers, take their photographs and register them in databases, and search for relatives.

That search begins with efforts to locate parents. If those efforts prove fruitless, investigators look for other relatives. If none are found, children are placed in foster care.

"Obviously, we are going to continue efforts to locate family members," said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. "But some of these kids we're looking at, their parents may have perished in the storm."

How these orphans of Katrina fare may depend at least in part on the services that are provided to them, according to Baltimore child psychiatrist John Walkup.

"The best thing adults can do around these kids is create some caretaker who can take responsibility," said Walkup, of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "A confident parental type, not lost in their own issues."

That person should be able to reassure the child of some stability, consistency and order, Walkup said. He said this may be more difficult with older children, who are more likely to ask if their parents are dead, or what exactly the adults know.

"The younger kids, all they're really concerned about is, is somebody going to take care of them?" he said.

As devastating as losing a parent is for children, Walkup said, the long-term impact on their lives may depend on what happens now. Are the economic circumstances worse? Is the child moved from place to place and not allowed to settle into a routine?

"The risk in this situation is that kids could experience that double whammy" of first being orphaned and then tossed into chaos, he said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is compiling a database of children looking for parents on its Web site at

The Louisiana page showed several children in photographs taken at shelters. Among them were 11-year-old Tyrell Louis, with close-cropped hair and a sharp chin, 11-year-old Kimberly Quesada, with big brown eyes, and 16-year-old Brittany Carter, her tight braids tied behind her head.

As of yesterday, Texas had placed 12 to 20 children in licensed foster homes, Crimmins said.

They included four siblings - three girls, ages 7, 11 and 14, and their 10-year-old brother - who were bused here from the Superdome in New Orleans. They came with their grandmother, but now she is gravely ill, and other relatives are missing.

Crimmins said the Department of Family and Protective Services had received several telephone calls from Texans interested in taking children unable to locate family. He said the state has plenty of licensed beds available for foster children.

In 11 years as a missing-persons investigator, Houston Police Officer Darrin Buse has never seen anything like the number of families rent by Katrina. Now at the Reliant Center, he remains hopeful that most of the children will be reunited with their parents. Still, as he searches databases to make connections, he thinks of his own family.

"It's a very sensitive issue," he said. "If you have kids, it would be terrifying to me if you've got a kid in one state and you're in another. You'd wonder how they're being cared for."

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