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1,000 Katrina Children Still Missing

Two and half months after the hurricane hit, nearly 1,300 are still on missing-children lists.
As Katrina fades from public attention, the pain of separation continues for families wrenched apart during the upheaval of the evacuation.

There are some happy outcomes for sure. Twelve-year-old Emil, 8-year-old Ronell, 8-year-old Ronald and 3-year-old Treneka were separated from their parents when the family left the New Orleans Superdome in September. The parents hoped the children were with friends but could not find them for two weeks. Finally a social worker and staff of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) located the children, who were staying with family friends in Dallas. Those children were reunited with their parents in a relatively short period, but now two and a half months after Hurricane Katrina, there are still nearly 1,300 missing children registered with the NCMEC.

The Justice Department asked the NCMEC, a private, nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Va., to be the lead organization in tracking and attempting to find missing children in Katrina's wake.

Bob O'Brien, director of NCMEC Missing Children's Division, said the number of missing children is so high partly because of the unprecedented circumstances surrounding Katrina. The NCMEC usually allows only parents and legal guardians to register children. But given the chaos of the relief effort, the organization opened up the registry to other relatives such as aunts, uncles and grandmothers.

The NCMEC registered 4,828 Katrina children in the weeks following the hurricane, and has resolved 73 percent of those cases. As of Nov. 8, however, 1,286 children had yet to be united with loved ones. Sixty-three and a half percent were listed as black in the registry. That is consistent with the 2000 New Orleans census figures of 67 percent black.

Some of the 1,286 children were listed as lost not by parents and guardians, but by relatives such as grandmothers. It is possible that some children may be with parents or other family. Still, the numbers of children missing are high by any measure and can be attributed in part to the chaos of the evacuation and the lack of records.

"From the New Orleans area," said O'Brien, "411,000 people were evacuated and then re-evacuated as families changed locations two or three times." Families were dispersed throughout the South and the rest of the country.

O'Brien says one of the great lessons of the evacuation is that uniform and accurate records need to be kept of evacuees as they move from location to location. O'Brien characterized the records taken at shelters and evacuation centers as "abysmal." With better information, he said, the NCMEC could reunite families more quickly.

Some of the missing children may be among the dead and yet to be identified because of the decomposition of water-logged bodies. The NCMEC is taking DNA samples from parents to aid in the identification. As of Nov. 1, there were still 140 bodies unidentified in the New Orleans morgue. Most of these bodies, however, are likely to be adults.

Another disturbing possibility is that some children could have been kidnapped. "There were 4,000 sex offenders evacuated along with the children," O'Brien said. These sex offenders have not yet registered their whereabouts as required by law in most states. However, so far there have been no cases of sex offenders found with missing children.

According to O'Brien, NCMEC has assigned a number of regular employees, mostly retired from law enforcement to man the phone lines in Virginia headquarters. Additional retired law enforcement officers have been enlisted to help in the effort.

There are also regularly employed consultants, seven of whom are working in Louisiana. They are making calls to police departments, social service agencies and going to ministers and school administrators to locate missing children.

In addition to the NCMEC Web site, www.missingkids.com, there are 28 sites on the Internet devoted to reuniting Katrina families. The Red Cross has a site, www.katrinasafe.org, as does craigslist.org.

The list of children on the NCMEC Web site is 25 pages long. Ashley, Cedric, Janila, Tyrese, Rashad, Jorge, Liliana, Al-Caliph, Carmissa and Lakeisha are but 10 names from the list.
PNS writer Donal Brown taught in California public schools for 35 years.