Foster Children Missing, Displaced After Katrina

Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 2,300 foster children in Louisiana, and state officials say about 158 are still unaccounted for. Most were separated from their foster parents during the evacuation, and relocating to other states has raised complex legal issues.

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The more than one million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina include thousands of foster children, more than 2,300 in Louisiana alone. For many, their lives were already in turmoil, their families broken by violence and abuse, and then came the storm, evacuation, and once again separation. NPR's Rachel Jones has the story of one foster family.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

Willie Mae Booth has cared for more than 250 foster children over 34 years. She had lived in her one-story 9th Ward house on a hill in New Orleans that whole time, and figured there was no way floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina would reach her front door. She was wrong.

Ms. WILLIE MAE BOOTH (Foster Mother): Just like the blink of an eye, the water just merged in through the window. I mean, trucks and everything went floating. So that's when my husband say, `Get to the attic. Get to the attic.'

JONES: The winds howled and the waters kept rising. Booth was caring for two of her three foster children at the time, boys aged 10 and 16. A third foster child was away visiting the family that was considering adopting him. But Booth's grandchildren and a neighbor's child were also there. She tied bed sheets around their waists to keep them from getting separated. But her youngest foster child, a boy with severe emotional and behavioral problems, was distraught.

Ms. BOOTH: There was fear. He was very frightened and very scared that we was going apart from one another, and they didn't know what was going to happen.

JONES: The rising water finally drove them out of the attic. Booth's husband grabbed his canoe and ferried the group over to a neighbor's two-story house. They were finally rescued by a helicopter. But then, her youngest foster son's worst fear came true.

Ms. BOOTH: And when we got to the airport, we boarded a plane and came to Lubbock. They boarded a plane and went to Baltimore, Maryland.

JONES: Booth would not find out what had happened to them until eight days later. The separation and trauma that can follow a natural disaster can be doubly traumatic for children who've spent years in foster care. Many have already endured severe emotional and physical abuse and can't form bonds with foster parents or other caregivers. Karen Jorgenson is executive director of the National Foster Parent Association. She says her organization has been overwhelmed by reports from child welfare agencies in the Gulf region. They're spending most of their time just locating displaced foster children. Louisiana officials say they still can't account for 158 of their charges. Many foster parents are too busy coping to check in with their case workers. And Jorgenson says they also have to comfort children who still long for their birth family ties.

Ms. KAREN JORGENSON (National Foster Parent Association): They don't know where the birth parents of these children went to, whether they're in a shelter or if they relocated out of state. Their siblings, if they're in different foster homes, they don't know where the siblings are. This is just even more of a loss for this child.

JONES: Jorgenson predicts a judicial nightmare for state agencies trying to piece together official records for displaced foster children. For example, the courthouse in Orleans Parish was flooded, destroying thousands of case files and records for impending adoptions.

Life is a bit calmer now for Willie Mae Booth. She wound up at her daughter's house in Atlanta, and officials tracked down her foster children. They're with her in Atlanta now, in part because officials across the country have eased the rules around transporting foster children across state lines. That helps foster parents cut the red tape around getting medical care, schooling and counseling for their children.

Booth wants to return to New Orleans, but Louisiana child welfare officials say the number of foster parents who don't want to come back is growing every day. Brenda Hodna(ph) is spokesperson for the Louisiana Office of Community Services.

Ms. BRENDA HODNA (Louisiana Office of Community Services): We are seeing now that we have foster families in practically every state across the country. I would say at least three-fourths of the states. We are beginning to catalog those and we're over 200.

JONES: And for every foster parent who doesn't come back to Louisiana, child welfare officials will have to decide where their foster children should end up, closer to their biological relatives, or with the families who helped them weather the storm. Rachel Jones, NPR News, Washington.

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