Katrina's Children: Childhood, Still Interrupted

All lost not only their belongings but at least a year of schooling and a big chunk of their childhoods. They are still struggling and, by now, largely forgotten.
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Television images of the children and families trapped in New Orleans during and after Katrina in August 2005 made poverty in America shockingly visible. The world saw hundreds standing in the hot sun on the interstate for days awaiting rescue, surviving with little or no food or water in the fetid Convention Center or on the roofs of their flooded home or emerging from the dangerous Superdome where children saw fights and shootings and later drew pictures of stick figure bodies covered in crayon red blood.

The second part of a Children's Defense Fund Report, "Held Captive:" Child Poverty in America (available online at www.childrensdefense.org/heldcaptive), looks at what has happened to some of these children during the five and a half years since then.

While some are back in New Orleans, others remain in Baton Rouge, where they spent two or more years in Renaissance Village, the largest of the FEMA trailer camps. One 9-year-old counted up 11 places he has lived. All lost not only their belongings but at least a year of schooling and a big chunk of their childhoods. They are still struggling and, by now, largely forgotten.

Their experiences reveal what happens when a severe upheaval is added to poverty, which is already traumatic. Studies of Katrina-affected children have found that thousands are seriously behind in school, acting out and suffering from extraordinarily high rates of health and mental health problems. The Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, in its screening of 12,000 public school students in and around New Orleans since the storm, found that 45 percent of 4th to 12th graders met the cut-off for mental health referral. Nonetheless, the one in-patient psychiatric facility for children in New Orleans has been moved out of the city for budget reasons, and newly created clinics cannot come close to helping all the children in need.

Every boy interviewed talked about anger and fighting in school. Justin, for example, lived with his father and older sister, in a trailer in Renaissance Village for two years and his potential as a very bright child began to fade. He is articulate and analytical, and the upheaval, the unknowns and lack of control following Katrina made him frustrated and angry. He faced a series of traumas—his dog died, his father and stepmother broke up—even before he got to the trailer park.

"I felt scared would I be able to go to New Orleans again," he told Julia Cass, the journalist who prepared the report. "Would it get better? What was going to happen to the economy? It was hard for me to concentrate in school. We thought our (birth) mom had died because we didn't have contact."

At Renaissance Village, Justin said, "I stayed in fights. I had a BB gun. I was shooting at trailers, busting the windows. I felt bad. I got around the wrong crowd. I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't care. That was me after Katrina. I was taking people's bikes, too. Happiness was gone."

Another terrible legacy of Katrina are self-raised children. More often than children of parents with means, poor children sometimes live with relatives or a series of relatives. Katrina ripped apart fragile family safety nets by scattering extended families. Some children came back to New Orleans on their own to stay with cousins or even friends who provide no guidance, routine or direction. Children who have to fend for themselves never learn how to plan or how to trust and work with others, and they make poor decisions.

Navia, 14, a self-raised child in Baton Rouge, said she wanted to graduate from high school and be the first in her family not to have a baby before age 20. She didn't seem to realize that being truant and missing a year of school would make it difficult for her to reach that goal. Her mother suffers from mental illness and was in the psychiatric ward at Charity Hospital when the hurricane struck. She doesn't have the energy or force to persuade Navia to do anything, and half their extended family is back in New Orleans.

The public institutions charged with involvement in Navia's life are failing her. Sister Judith Brun, a nun who has taken it upon herself to help Katrina-displaced children in Baton Rouge, reported that Navia was out of school but the school district did not send a truant officer to the home all year. At 14, she is already far off the pathway to a happy and successful life.

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