By: Elizabeth Hewett Brumberg, MD, FAAP & Sarita Chung, MD, FAAP
Being separated from your child during a disaster, especially if you don't know where they are, is one of the most stressful events a parent can go through. Advanced planning and preparing your child will help your family reunite as quickly as possible.
What is reunification?
"Reunification" is the word that schools, healthcare facilities and emergency management agencies use for the process of reconnecting children with their parents or guardians after a disaster. Because kids are often separated from their families while at school or in child care, there needs to be a way to reunite them if a disaster occurs while they're apart.
After thousands of children were separated from their families in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina in 2005, two new national programs were created to help in the event of future disasters. These are the Unaccompanied Minors Registry and the National Emergency Child Locator Center, which is activated when there is a national disaster.
But even though we now have these programs, it is important for every family to have a plan and prepare their children for what to do if they are separated during a disaster. Here are steps that can help:
10 ways to help ensure your family is separated for the shortest time possible
A little preparation and having a plan in place will help children know what to do if a disaster happens when they are away from you. A few simple steps can help you and your children feel more prepared:
- For all children, make a
Backpack Emergency Card for them to carry in their school bag. This card has information about your child, you, and another emergency contact. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a
downloadable form here.
- Talk with your child's school about their reunification plan. If they do not have one, consider requesting that the school board or local emergency management agency create one.
- For children with special health care needs, it is even more important that they carry some type of identification with them at all times so that anyone who finds them will know who they are and how to contact you.
- As soon as they are old enough, teach your kids their own names as well as your names and phone numbers, and the name and phone number of an out-of-state family member or friend. If your child carries a mobile phone, program it with phone numbers for you as well as extended family members and trusted friends.
- Create a family "password" and teach them to only go with adults who know this special word or phrase.
- If you are going to a crowded place, write your phone number on a piece of your child's clothing or a bracelet or lanyard for them or those helping them to reference if they are lost. Teach children that if they are separated from you, they should look for someone who appears to be in charge, like a police officer.
- Talk with older children in advance to help them brainstorm what they would do if they were separated from you in a disaster. Identify a family meeting place other than your home where they would go if separated from you during a disaster. This could be a neighbor's or family member's home or a local landmark. This is a good thing to do at large public events as well—when you first arrive, establish an easily found spot where you will meet if separated.
- If your child is lost, contact a local law enforcement agency immediately. Give them as much information as possible about your child including their age, height, weight, hair and eye colors and what they were wearing.
- Always keep a recent picture of your child's face with you on your phone and in your wallet. Also consider keeping it on a social media page in case your phone and wallet are separated from you.
- Keep all forms of identification for your family in copies on your phone including driver's licenses and passports. Consider having hard copies available to you outside your home in case your phone is misplaced.
About Dr. Hewett Brumberg
Elizabeth Hewett Brumberg, MD, FAAP, is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Children and Disasters and Section on Emergency Medicine.
About Dr. Chung
Sarita Chung, MD, FAAP, is a member of the AAP Council on Children and Disasters, its Section on Emergency Medicine and the Massachusetts Chapter of the AAP.