Since August, America’s shores have been pummeled by Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey. Each has displaced thousands and wreaked havoc on some of the country’s largest metropolitan areas. Among those impacted are some of the most vulnerable citizens of this country — kids in foster care. Whether living in a residential treatment facility, foster home or kinship care, hundreds of children have experienced the immediate impacts of flooding, damaging winds and destruction of their homes, and the long-term impacts are yet to be known.
In Texas more than 400 children in foster care were immediately displaced. Several residential treatment facilities in the Houston area were damaged and two rendered completely uninhabitable. Other children in foster care were displaced along with the foster families who were caring for them. Texas Department of Family and Protective Services officials have tracked the children and the situation from the beginning.
“Almost all of the residential facilities are back in business; two are closed, but the combined capacity was less than 20 so we really did not lose any capacity to speak of,” said Patrick Crimmins, spokesperson for Texas DFPS. “Those youth were quickly placed elsewhere in our system which of course is very large and varied.”
Other Texas organizations have sprung into action to help foster and kinship families who were displaced to keep placements stable and the children with their existing families.
“Other organizations caring for children that were displaced or experienced damage to buildings and homes are doing what they can to continue to care for children,” said Katie Renner Olse, executive director of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services. “Organizations all over Texas helped their partners in the impacted area. One provider took in children and staff temporarily when another organization had to evacuate. Texas has a very supportive network of public and private child-serving agencies.”
One organization, Orphan Care Solutions of Texas, has been coordinating efforts to help affected families. President Terri Jaggers said families are being matched with churches in their area to help them in big and small ways. Orphan Care Solutions has served more than 2,500 foster children and families at their resource centers with food, water, clothes, diapers, formula, beds, furnishings and other supplies. They’ve even helped foster families who lost vehicles in the flooding secure new vehicles.
“The miracle of Harvey is that the church rallied around the needs of our community’s foster children and families,” Jaggers said. “It didn’t matter what agency the family was with, nor the location, the talents of the church were matched to the very needs of the children/families.”
Individuals have been registering their needs and their talents on Orphan Care Solutions’ website (http://www.orphancaresolutions.com/hurricane-harvey-relief.html) so they can get connected to help in the rebuilding efforts. Efforts have also included cleaning out foster family homes, reinstalling drywall and painting, as well as helping to secure new furniture and appliances.
“Sixty-five foster families have been assigned ‘messenger angels’ — church partners who have assigned people who regularly care for their children, help with meals, paint, clean the yards, do whatever is necessary to keep the spirits up of the foster families,” Jaggers said.
Similarly, in Florida, individuals like Marc Bell stepped up to help children displaced by Hurricane Irma. When 70 children and a dozen of their caretakers from SOS Children’s Village Florida could no longer stay at their shelter, executive director Jillian Smath reached out to board member Bell for help.
“I was the last person she [Smath] spoke to before they went to the shelter and I said if they need anything to let me know,” Bell said.
Little did Bell know that the offer would mean hosting those children in his home, but the experience is something Bell and his family and friends are not soon to forget. For three days the Bell family and 150 of their friends entertained, cooked, cleaned and cared for the children before they could return to the SOS Children’s Village.
“Thursday morning the house was quiet and we were so sad so we went down to the Village,” Bell said. “We really connected a lot with these kids.”
Bell’s relationship with SOS Children’s Village started more than five years ago when Bell decided he didn’t want a 45th birthday party. Instead, he took several children from SOS Children’s Village Florida with him to Disney World. But now that Bell has hosted the children in his own home for a number of days, he said he feels personally invested in their lives.
“It doesn’t cost anything to give anybody a hug,” Bell said. “My wife and I have decided to go through the foster care process to become foster parents.”
While Bell’s story made headlines, so did destruction in other areas of the state. For the most part, the state’s foster parents weathered the storm relatively well, according to George Sheldon, president and CEO of Our Kids, the organization that is responsible for the care and safety of foster children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. About 56 families were evacuated from the Florida Keys prior to Hurricane Irma making landfall. And some kinship families living outside of the area, including one in Puerto Rico, have been in contact with the agency.
“We evacuated all the foster families out of The Keys,” Sheldon said. “We secured an emergency court order to allow foster children to be moved out of county and state without prior court approval.”
Now all of those children and families have safely returned to their homes and surprisingly, no foster family homes were destroyed by the storm, although 11 staff people working in The Keys did lose their homes. To help accommodate all the moving parts involved in helping families evacuate and return to their homes, as well as accounting for the staff members who lost their homes, Pensacola sent a six-person team to help Our Kids for several days.
“All in all, because of a lot of dedicated people,” Sheldon said. “As much as these storms are tragic, they do bring out the best in the community.”
Now the agency is assessing its response to the hurricane and areas that might need to be improved. Ultimately, Sheldon credits a strong communication system with helping to address all the needs appropriately. Already the organization leaders have decided to purchase satellite phones for key personnel because cellular service was an issue post-Hurricane Irma.
In hard-hit Puerto Rico where 85 percent of the island remains without power it’s unknown how children in foster care and their caretakers weathered the storm. Multiple emails and phone calls to government child welfare in Puerto Rico weren’t returned.
Although it appears that most foster children have come through the hurricanes relatively unscathed, there are lasting effects that may still play out in the comes weeks, months, and even, years.
Therapist Melanie Chung-Sherman said the road to recovery for any person who experienced the devastating effects of these hurricanes will be difficult. For children who have experienced early childhood trauma living in out-of-home placements, the effects can be especially severe and long-term.
“Every Texan has been impacted by Harvey in some way,” Chung-Sherman said. “It feels different emotionally than the complex trauma of abuse and neglect.”
Chung-Sherman who specializes in working with children in foster care and those who have been adopted has volunteered during other catastrophic events, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Most recently Chung-Sherman volunteered with the American Red Cross in Dallas to assist victims of Hurricane Harvey.
“For kids in foster care, the norm is not normal,” Chung-Sherman said. “These children are already holding a deep amount of PTSD. It’s brought up unresolved trauma. Their entire community of what they know is completely altered.”
For those who’ve waded through flood waters, stayed in emergency shelters and worried about the homes they’ve left behind, the emotions can be intense. For children who are currently in care or have been adopted, having biological family living in the areas impacted by the hurricanes can bring up a lot of anxiety.
Chung-Sherman encourages parents and caregivers to talk about what the child may be feeling and to “hold that worry with your child.” She also said it’s important to return to a sense of routine as quickly as possible to minimize impacts on children.
In Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, efforts are underway to rebuild physically and emotionally and the impacts of the children is not something that Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services’ Olse takes casually.
“We are working to assess and address the longer-term implications of this disaster, “Olse said. “For example, children in foster care already have significant trauma from abuse and neglect and from being removed from their family. It’s our job to understand, assess and work to address trauma – and now the additional trauma of enduring a scary storm and seeing your home or your school damaged. Organizations serving children and their families are taking advantage of every resource to help.”