The Child and Family Services Improvement Act of 2006 requires that child welfare agencies have a disaster response plan. This plan must include continuity of operations procedures (COOP) so as to demonstrate how the agency will maintain its services and operations in times of crises. The disaster response plan would also detail how youth would receive services, how records would be kept, how communication would be maintained between case managers and foster families, and how the organization would coordinate between various local and state agencies. These same requirements may be necessary for any non-profit organization that works with child welfare agencies. Regardless of the types of disaster, such as floods, wildfires, hurricanes, or simple power outages, your organization needs an action plan.
After Hurricane Katrina there was a surprising number of children separated from their parents within the affected gulf coast region. It was also difficult for child welfare agencies to maintain communication with foster families and the youth they were charged with protecting. After Katrina, 5192 children were reported missing or displaced. All but 12 were eventually found alive. Most of these children were with parents or foster parents, but without a clear communication plan, local agencies had no way of knowing the whereabouts of these youths. Approximately 45 children showed up at local shelters with no parents at all. In some cases it took months to sort out who was responsible for these children. This situation is further complicated because state and federal laws place limits on information sharing on children. With custody arrangements in today’s society an individual claiming responsibility for a child has to do more than simply show a picture. They need to prove they are the legal guardian of the child. One has to have custody documents, birth certificates, perhaps even DNA samples of the child to prove a legal right to claim that youth. This example emphasizes why disaster protocols and policies need to be in place for every non-profit agency that works within the child welfare system.
During disaster events, local government services are often knocked out. It is important that your organization’s disaster response plan dovetail with local emergency operations plans. For example, your local emergency management office has plans for setting up points of distribution (PODs) to distribute food, water, and ice. Your organizational plan should include where these PODs are located so that local foster families can access these items if necessary. Additionally, disaster shelter locations set up by your county or city would be critical information to include in your plan. If any of the youth your organization works with have special needs they should be registered with the local emergency management office so they can be notified of the activation of a special needs shelter. Therefore, coordinating your organizational plan with local authorities is important.
In addition to the fundamental issues contained in a disaster response plan, there are other topics that deserve just as much attention, such as how your employees will care for their families if a disaster strikes. Do your employees have a family disaster plan? Have your employees been trained in personal disaster preparedness? These steps are critical if your staff is going to be counted on to serve the organization effectively. If your staff can’t take care of themselves or their families then they are of no use to you in a crisis. Often an organization makes plans for every contingency, but fails to insure that their employees are the most prepared in the community. Providing disaster preparedness training is more than handing out a list of items that need to be stockpiled in a 72 hour kit; employees need to understand how they will provide food, water, and power for their families for an extended period of time. Something as simple as charging a cell phone when the power has been out for over a week can become a critical issue.
Many local and state agencies rely on volunteers to support the extra work load that occurs during a crisis. Does your child welfare agency have a crop of volunteers that can serve the same purpose? If the child welfare agency is partnered with various non-profit groups, these groups can often provide the volunteer manpower. However, arrangements have to be made before the disaster strikes. These volunteers need to be trained, and a call up list created that would enable them to be quickly mobilized. These volunteers will need to be fed and possibly housed for a short duration as they help out with the crisis. Therefore, the disaster response plan needs to address the logistics of using volunteers.
In support of National Preparedness month, we have a few key resources you can use to help you develop your organizational disaster response plan. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers free online training courses through their independent study program. These courses cover a wide array of disaster management and mitigation topics, including many on emergency planning. The Annie E. Casey Foundation provides a free Disaster Preparedness Resource Guide for Child Welfare Agencies that can be downloaded from their website. This resource guide provides an in-depth overview of resources and suggestions for developing your disaster response plan. Finally, you will want to contact your local and state emergency management office to find out what resources they have available for you. Start planning now before the disaster strikes. Make a plan and exercise your plan a few times each year. You may also want to contact local preparedness organizations such as the Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), The Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), and the American Red Cross, to name a few. These organizations can help train your staff and perhaps provide volunteer manpower in times of crises.