The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 18, 2017

Reweaving a stabilizing web for children after disasters

September 18, 2017

My mind keeps going back to the iconic photo of the first responder carrying a mother through the Houston flood, with a sleeping baby nestled in her arms. The image shows the web of safety and support that helped the baby feel safe enough to sleep peacefully despite the devastation and fear surrounding him. 

But it also shows the fragility of children in these situations. In recent weeks, through Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the western wildfires, and the Mexico earthquake, pictures of frightened children with overwhelmed parents were much more common.

These images remind us of the importance of stabilizing and supporting children through traumas. Our recent work on instability and children highlights the web of stabilizing supports that children need to deal with the trauma and stress caused by disasters that have buffeted our hemisphere in recent weeks. Evidence from earlier natural disasters reveals that although these events can have long-term repercussions for children’s well-being and development, children can be resilient and recover if they have the necessary supports.

When stability is threatened

The stabilizing web includes many elements, almost all of which are threatened in these disaster zones. The most important stabilizer for children is their parents, but parents are facing enormous stress as they try to take care of their children and rebuild their lives while facing logistical, financial, and emotional challenges. Having a safe home and stable routine are also key, but an estimated 185,000 homes in Houston were damaged or destroyed

Family and community supports are another element of the web, yet these supports are shredded for children who have found their families and social networks dispersed and their communities devastated. Schools, early education, and child care programs are also key supports for children and their families, but they have suffered damage as well. In Houston, an estimated 190 schools will need major cleanup or repair, and one estimate suggests the storm damaged as many as 40 percent of the city’s child care programs.

Supporting children in times of crisis

Every sector can do its part to stabilize families. Houston schools, for example, are committing to reopen within two weeks after the storm, offering every child three meals for the rest of the year, supporting parents, and expanding a community schools concept that makes the schools a hub of support services for families. They have also trained their teachers in detecting stress and trauma, and they are committed to expanding mental health supports. But schools are facing major budget challenges, compounded by the fact that the Houston tax base is likely to be stressed in coming years.

Some important steps to support children in times of crisis include:

  • Helping parents understand the ways their children need their support during this uncertain time. Useful materials for parents are available from several sources.
  • Offering parents financial, logistical, and emotional and mental health supports to help them get through this time so they can be there for their children.
  • Helping schools and early education and child care programs get up and running quickly. Children need to be with their teachers and friends as soon as possible, not only for their educational needs, but to help them regain a sense of normalcy and routine and to allow their parents respite so they can deal with rebuilding challenges.
  • Ensuring that teachers have the mental health supports and tools they need to help children through these traumatic times, while recovering from their own trauma.
  • Enlisting employers in supporting parents who may need extra time and leave to stabilize their children. But even in normal times, families with fewer resources often have employers that provide less flexibility and less leave. 
  • Providing extra supports and resources for the most vulnerable children and families, including children in the hardest-hit communities, children whose parents were already partially employed or lost their jobs because of the destruction, children whose families face mental health challenges that could be exacerbated by the disaster’s trauma, or families who face other special challenges.

I hope other sectors follow the model presented by the Houston schools to take steps to stabilize children’s lives, not only during this crisis but over the coming months as healing and rebuilding continues. If community organizations, employers, and others in the public and private sectors prioritize stabilizing and supporting children and families, many more children in Houston will sleep feeling safe, despite the devastation around them.

Houston Police SWAT officer Daryl Hudeck carries Catherine Pham and her 13-month-old son Aiden after rescuing them from their home surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston. Photo by David J. Phillip/AP.


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