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Evacuated to a Texas shelter after Hurricane Katrina, a 4-year-old talks of a dead dog with white worms coming out of it. A family hopes that a baby wracked by diarrhea will return to health. Another baby, who was with a babysitter when New Orleans flooded, is now under the care of Texas's child protective service because his mother was evacuated to Iowa.
Many young children like these, who escaped rising floodwaters, lost homes and close family or friends, and spent weeks in chaotic shelters, are now either withdrawn or hyperactive. Their parents are "in shock," sometimes exploding in anger, sometimes terrified to let children leave their sides for a moment.
The trauma and displacement of Katrina could cause lasting harm to young children, undermining their emotional security and school readiness. Poor children—especially those previously shaken by family instability or neighborhood violence—are particularly vulnerable. The children of New Orleans, already disproportionately poor and starting school deeply disadvantaged, can ill afford further damage.
Children can be astonishingly resilient, but not without steady emotional support and a return to relative stability and security. Parents are central to children's recovery, yet in the aftermath of Katrina, parents' own trauma and uncertainty compromise their ability to help.
Consequently, meaningful help for young children rests on two pillars: high-quality early childhood programs and renewed stability for their parents. The programs young children attend should be staffed by skilled professionals, each caring for a small group, and offer links to physical and mental health care. But just as urgently, parents need jobs and a safe place to call home.
Individual families cannot realistically piece together the jigsaw puzzle of stable housing in healthy neighborhoods with secure jobs and high-quality preschools nearby. The challenge is greater for families that were struggling, even before the storm, amid poverty and social distress. If they simply return to their previous circumstances, neither parents nor their children are likely to recover. Coherently responding to that challenge demands public leadership.
We know that some public responses won't work. Hasty, one-dimensional fixes—like waiving quality standards to get child care facilities up and running, or erecting trailer parks without first figuring out where residents will work or where children will be cared for—often backfire. Children in distress need higher-, not lower-, quality care. And trailer parks packed with poverty-stricken families can too quickly become desperate, dangerous ghettos.
The building blocks for a coherent policy response already exist in the form of promising models of success:
High-quality early childhood education. Louisiana has already recognized the benefits of investing in state preschool. And the federally funded, community-based Head Start program served about 60 percent of poor preschoolers in Louisiana before the hurricane. Now is the time to make early childhood education available to every family that comes home to New Orleans.
Rigorous research shows that intensive programs like Head Start (for 3- and 4-year-olds) and Early Head Start (for babies and toddlers) help children learn, address health needs, and strengthen families. Such investments should be part of rebuilding from the beginning, so parents and children can get the help they need. Without this help, school reform in New Orleans will face an even steeper uphill battle as each year's first-grade teachers deal anew with the damage their students have suffered.
Affordable housing in healthy communities. In cities around the country, the HOPE VI program is replacing distressed and dangerous housing projects with thriving, mixed-income communities where poor families can live in safety with a chance at a better life. In New Orleans, low-income housing has a troubled and controversial history. As the city rebuilds, it would be tragic to repeat past mistakes. Instead, all publicly funded housing development should be modeled on the best of the HOPE VI experience, including high-quality design and construction, economic diversity, and access to essential services like Head Start.
Rebuilding lives and communities will pose ongoing challenges for every family returning to New Orleans. If, as a nation, we care about the future of the city's children, we must meet these challenges with a plan that boldly combines what we know about revitalizing neighborhoods with what we know about healing children and families.
Olivia Golden is an Urban Institute senior fellow and a former assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Margery Austin Turner is director of the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center and a former deputy assistant secretary for research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The views are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Urban Institute, its board of trustees, or its sponsors.