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Report: States can do more to protect kids

Published 11:42 am, Saturday, September 7, 2013
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From the many families displaced during Hurricane Sandy to the devastation of the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, last year was a horrific one for children.

Yet despite the constant reminders of how vulnerable young people are to violence and disaster, many states still fail to meet basic child-safety measures, according to a report released from Westport-based Save the Children.

"We're just seeing more and more children affected by horrific disasters and emergencies," said Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais, senior director of U.S. emergencies for Save the Children.

On Wednesday, the agency released its annual disaster report card, rating states on whether they met Save the Children's child safety recommendations. The agency asks states to require schools to have disaster plans that account for multiple hazards. It also suggests states require schools and child care centers to have an evacuation plan, a family reunification plan, and a plan for children with special needs.

When Save the Children released its first report card in 2008, only four states met all four standards.

Now, 22 states meet all the requirements, including Connecticut. But too many states don't have all the pieces in place, De Marrais said. And even those that do, like Connecticut, have room for improvement.

"Connecticut is one of the best prepared states in the country, but that doesn't mean more can't be done," she said.

By way of example, she pointed to the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, where Adam Lanza killed 26 people, including 20 children. Save the Children produced a series of videos to accompany the report card, including powerful testimony from Robbie and Alissa Parker, whose 6-year-old daughter Emilie was one of the children killed at Sandy Hook.

In the video, the Parkers talk about concerns they had about school security prior to the attack and urge parents to be vigilant about their children's safety.

"We want you to look at your children and make sure you're doing everything in your power to make sure that they are going to go on to live the most happy and productive life that they can," Robbie Parker said in the video.

De Marrais said the Sandy Hook tragedy highlighted pros and cons of how disasters are handled in the state. She pointed out there was some confusion in reuniting the surviving children with their distraught parents. However, she applauded the efforts of several organizations, including Save the Children, in quickly setting up an operations center at Reed Intermediate School, where families could receive grief counseling.

De Marrais said one thing that communities need to do following any disaster is to set up a child-friendly space -- a sort of home base where children can go and receive food, shelter and other necessary help.

Agencies throughout the state were called upon to offer help in the tragedy's wake, including the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut. The center serves young people in Stamford, Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien.

Jessica Welt, the center's director of crisis services, said any emergency, from a shooting to a tornado, changes the natural order of things. That can be hard for children to understand.

"Life as they were accustomed to it is not going to be the same," she said. That's why it's important to establish a sort of "new normal" as soon as possible.

"That's what's most beneficial -- is find a way to get some sort of normalcy and structure," she said.

In addition to Sandy Hook, the report also mentions a variety of natural disasters that affected families and children, including the tornadoes in Moore, Okla., and Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast last fall. Sandy had a major impact in Connecticut, causing property damage, power outages and several deaths.

Though states and communities have a lot of work to do to make children safer, it's important to point out the progress that's already been made, said Mary Kate Lowndes, director of development and special projects for the Connecticut Commission on Children.

Until a few years ago, she said, Connecticut only met one of Save the Children's standards -- having an emergency plan at schools.

It's since passed legislation that requires the evacuation plan and other standards.

"The good news is that the state has come a long way in a short amount of time," Lowndes said.

acuda@ctpost.com; 203-330-6290; twitter.com/AmandaCuda; http://blog.ctnews.com/whatthehealth/