Amid the chaos of a natural, technological, or human-caused disaster, there is an increased possibility for children to become separated from their parents or legal guardians. This separation could occur during the evacuation or sheltering process or because children in childcare, educational, medical, juvenile justice, recreational, or other facility may be unable to reconnect with their parents or legal guardians.
Reunifying unaccompanied minors and separated or missing children with their parents or legal guardians is a priority in the aftermath of a disaster. The most effective method to reunite children is to provide an efficient and coordinated family reunification program to deliver reunification services and support to all survivors and their loved ones. Accomplishing this goal requires the efficient, coordinated use of resources and efforts from the community at the local, State, regional, and national levels. It integrates planning for children’s reunification into general reunification plans.
It is essential to successful reunification efforts that agencies with a role in the reunification of children are identified and that mechanisms for coordination among them are developed, along with processes to ensure the protection of unaccompanied children. The scope of these efforts may be overwhelming unless a plan is developed in advance by organizations such as child welfare agencies and the education system; law enforcement; hospitals; emergency management (specifically ESF #6 Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Temporary Housing, and Human Services) and a reunification task force, if activated; Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) such as the American Red Cross and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC); and State Clearing Houses.
Through the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA), the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has been designated as the national organization responsible for supporting the reunification of unaccompanied minors with parents/legal guardians. NCMEC has resources, including the National Emergency Child Locator Center (NECLC), Team Adam, and the Unaccompanied Minors Registry (UMR).6
The checklist below provides key planning points that will assist States in creating their statewide child reunification plan. It addresses planning considerations for three potential reunification situations during a disaster.
- A minor is separated from his or her parent or legal guardian (unaccompanied minor);
- A child’s parent or legal guardian reports the child missing.
- A minor reported missing person is found to be deceased.
All general planning considerations below were formed with all three potential reunification situations in mind, except where specifically indicated for unaccompanied minors (situation #1) and children found deceased (situation #3).
More detailed information can be found in the Post-Disaster Reunification of Children: A Nationwide Approach, which provides a comprehensive overview of the coordination processes and resources necessary to reunify unaccompanied minors with their parents or legal guardians.
|Form a collaborative planning team.|
|Designate a Lead Agency to coordinate reunification of children throughout all phases of disaster.||Provide leadership and subject matter expertise on children’s issues and legal issues related to reunification of minors. Integrate/coordinate plans for reunification operations with larger reunification groups.|
|Identify support agencies to serve as a planning team and assist the lead agency in coordinating disaster reunification efforts. The planning team can include stakeholders from a variety of sectors, including social services, pediatric, medical (including medical examiner), educational, childcare, Head Start, Runaway & Homeless Youth programs, juvenile justice, recreational, and disabilities communities to provide planning support for overall reunification of children.||Stakeholders who bear responsibility for the care of children should establish their emergency child reunification plans to be coordinated with the State’s reunification plan. Encourage agencies responsible for providing care to children to develop Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP) that address children’s medical records, legal custodial documentation, and other pertinent information that will assist with reunification efforts.|
|Implement FRS and connect shelters, Family Assistance Centers, hospitals, childcare and educational facilities, coroners/medical examiner’s offices, and Public Health and Medical Services to collect and share information in real time.|
|Identify a suitable liaison to coordinate with ESF #6 or the Multi-Agency Reunification Task Force if it is activated.|
|Establish connections with any existing state or community Children & Youth in Disaster Task Force and liaise during preparedness planning and response.|
|Determine planning scenarios that could separate large numbers of individuals, specifically children.||Identify demographic data on the numbers of children in schools, daycare, medical, juvenile justice, and other facilities during normal business hours or the school day. Utilize GIS technology to map data. Research statutes and State regulations that may allow for additional staff support of reunification efforts (Disaster Leave Law).|
|Identify State and national reunification resources to support reunification efforts.||National reunification resources include: – National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) National Emergency Child Locator Center (NECLC) – NCMEC’s Unaccompanied Minors Registry – Red Cross Safe and Well SWIFT Teams – Missing Child Clearinghouses – Disaster Leave Law employees|
|Determine a process for tracking individuals, including children, during mass evacuation or throughout any phase of the disaster.||If process involves technology systems, coordinate systems with other State or Federal systems.|
|Identify a process to search for unidentified minors, missing children, and their families in collaboration with law enforcement and other appropriate agencies.||Implement FRS to coordinate information from emergency public communications systems (e.g., 911 centers), search and rescue teams, disaster shelters, Family Assistance Centers, hospitals, childcare and educational facilities, and coroner/medical examiner offices relating to children who have become separated from their parents or legal guardians. Consider call center capabilities among stakeholders, within the community or via national resources such as the NCMEC’s NECLC.|
|Define procedures for training and utilization of spontaneous volunteers who have been background-checked and fingerprinted and can offer their services to support reunification.|
|Identify suitable transportation resources to aid in physically reunifying the child and parent/legal guardian, especially in disasters across State or State lines.|
|Include child reunification scenarios in disaster training and/or exercises, providing opportunities for first responders, emergency managers, and pediatric stakeholders to learn to fully incorporate children (with and without disabilities and other health care needs) into emergency preparedness plans and operations.|
|Coordinate public messaging pre-disaster.|
|Encourage and support reunification planning among the larger community of caregivers (e.g., foster and congregate care agencies and families, hospitals, schools, childcare providers, camps, scout programs, etc.).|
|Develop a strong reunification preparedness message campaign for families.||Promote personal preparedness among children, their families, and temporary caregivers (educational, childcare, juvenile justice, recreational personnel). Ensure that you include messaging to families with limited English proficiency.|
|Coordinate public messaging post-disaster|
|Establish a means to coordinate information collection to/from the public, including tips, leads, and reports regarding children who become separated from their parents or legal guardians.||Prepare and disseminate timely speaking points in key demographic languages that align with the reunification plan, and that can be pushed out to the public in a disaster to provide information regarding children who have become separated from their parents or legal guardians. Speaking points should include the following information: Phone numbers of any call centers or hotlines that have been activated to collect information about children who have become separated from their legal guardians. This could be managed as part of or separate from a hotline number to collect information regarding adult reunification.URLs of FRS sites and availability of QR codes that can assist in getting information quicker than hotlines.Location(s) where parents can collect their separated children.If feasible, a “reunification center” can be established in a designated faith-based institution or community center.Determine suitable release procedures to ensure the child is released to his/her legal guardian.Establish a reporting mechanism to relay all child reunification-related information to a centralized point.|
|Coordinate public messaging with ESF #6 and other stakeholders to ensure that consistent, timely information is provided to the public about resources and processes related to child reunification.||Utilize social media to message out important information about searching for loved ones in the disaster. Publish URLs of FRS sites and QR codes to help families get information. Monitor social media for important tips, leads, and reports about children reported as missing from their legal guardians.|
|Define and message out required qualifications for spontaneous volunteers who may offer services to support reunification.|
|Minors reported missing are found to be deceased.|
|Determine existing in-state post-mortem capacity for mass casualty incidents.||Identify national resources that can support additional needs or expertise with children’s remains. HHS Disaster Mortuary Operational Response TeamsNCMEC’s Project ALERT and/or Team Adam|
|Establish a method to collect detailed antemortem data from parents and legal guardians who report their child missing.||Create a reporting form that includes questions about the child’s last seen location, physical appearance, scars, birthmarks, clothing, and other identifying information about the child. NCMEC’s NECLC uses an online database to collect information. Ensure that the call center or agencies responsible for the collection of this information, from calling parents and legal guardians, obtain this important information to aid in the identification and reunification of the child.|
|Develop a method to quickly and effectively communicate with and collect pertinent victim information from hospitals (injured) and morgue (deceased).||Use FRS’ detail intake forms to collect important data such as physical descriptors (clothing/birthmarks/scars), medical information, personal effects (glasses/doll), and post-mortem data is critical to the identification of victims.|
|Ensure a coroner or medical examiner makes positive identification before the notification of next of kin or before the body is released to a person authorized to direct the disposition of remains.||Protocols should already be in place to address the processes and procedures for notifying authorities, agencies, and families. Consider adding a representative of the medical examiner or coroner’s office, a member of the clergy, and possibly a medical professional in the notification team. It may also benefit to have the family’s pastor or other clergy member present. Develop a resource list that includes information regarding support for funeral arrangements or expenses for bereaved families.|
|Include grief counselors, mental health support services, and the faith-based community or clergy to support the deceased’s parents, siblings, and/or legal guardians.|
“Post-Disaster Reunification of Children: A Nationwide Approach.” November 2013. National Mass Care Strategy website.
For more information on the Children and Youth in Disaster Task Force model, go to
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