Making child protection a higher priority

As events in Maryland and Louisiana show, those who care for kids must be prepared for an emergency at all times

August 30, 2012|By Mark Shriver

The earthquake struck without warning during children's naptime.

Fortunately, Judy Tribby and her fellow staff members at the YMCA-Arc child care center in Bowie knew exactly what to do last August, when the ground started to shake.

Within seconds, well before the crying children were fully awake, the caregivers began placing infants and toddlers into evacuation cribs. They grabbed ready-to-go emergency bags prepared for each child and quickly moved all 40 children, including a number of children with disabilities, into the main hallway away from the windows.

"Our emergency plans are in writing. We have frequent emergency drills," said Ms. Tribby, who serves as the nurse administrator at the YMCA center. "Hopefully we are ready to deal with whatever emergency may arise: lockdowns, tornadoes, hurricanes, even an earthquake."

Ms. Tribby credits the state of Maryland for making emergency preparedness a priority for child care centers and schools in her state. Maryland requires all licensed child care facilities to develop specific emergency plans for infants, toddlers, children with disabilities and children with access and functional needs.

According to a new report released this week by Save the Children, 27 states do not have such requirements, putting many vulnerable children at risk, including infants and toddlers who need assistance to evacuate. All told, more than 11 million children attend child care nationwide, including 1.5 million infants.

Save the Children's new report also has found gaps in emergency preparedness for schools. The study found that nine states still do not require K-12 schools to have comprehensive plans in place to handle a variety of emergencies. Some state officials maintain that mandating fire or tornado drills at school is sufficient. But, as illustrated by the surprise earthquake last August and this week's horrifying shooting on ths first day of school at Perry Hall High School, state standards for schools need to account for multiple types of hazards — from severe weather to gun violence. Every school should have a written plan to handle these emergencies and keep children safe.

The annual report assessed all 50 states and the District of Columbia on four basic disaster preparedness and safety standards for children in child care and at school. Three of the standards focus on child care facilities and the fourth is for schools.

During the past five years, Save the Children has found that several states, including Maryland, have made significant progress in making child protection a priority at both schools and child care facilities, with the number of states reaching all four standards increasing from four in 2008 to 17 in 2012. This year, Louisiana joined the group, a fact that took on great significance this week with Tropical Storm Isaac pounding the state and many residents forced to evacuate. Shockingly, five states — Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan and Montana — have failed to set any of the preparedness standards for regulated child care facilities or schools.

What can parents do? For starters, go to our report online and check out the interactive map to find out where your state stands on child protection. The site also provides the opportunity to write a letter to your governor and express your views. (You can also hear more from Judy Tribby about what the YMCA-Arc center does to prepare for emergencies.)

Also, don't hesitate to ask your child's school or day care center for a copy of their emergency plan. Look for specifics in terms of an evacuation and relocation plan, an emergency communications plan, a plan to reunite children with family members after a disaster, and a plan to accommodate children who require additional help in case of an emergency.

While states and local communities are primarily responsible for emergency preparedness planning, the federal government can also do more. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently published a report detailing the amount the agency spent specifically to help hospitals, schools and other child-oriented facilities be better prepared to assist children in emergencies. During a recent seven-year period, FEMA spent less than $10 million. That's less than 2 cents per child per year. Hardly enough.

Our policymakers in Washington need to take their cue from states like Maryland and Louisiana and make child protection a higher priority.

Every American understands that we have a moral obligation to protect our children — especially those who are too young to protect themselves or who have disabilities that require additional assistance. Good intentions are not enough. Like Judy Tribby, we need to be prepared.

Mark Shriver, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, is senior vice president of Save the Children's U.S. Programs.

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