Roundtable: Reuniting Families Split by Katrina

Thursday's topics: Many are still missing in the aftermath of Katrina; what are organizations doing to help reunite them? Guests: Ann Scofield, manager of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Project Alert; Dr. Lucille Perez, national director for the NAACP Health Department; and Mary Green, a 49-year-old resident of Avondale, La., who was separated from her husband after evacuating from New Orleans' Superdome to Houston.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children last week estimated that more than 200--or 2,300 people were still missing or searching for their parents weeks after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. On today's special roundtable, we'll talk about efforts to reunite families. Joining us: Ann Scofield, she's an official with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Project ALERT. She joins us from our Washington, DC, studios. Also with us, Lucille Perez, MD. She's the national director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Health Department. And from her temporary residence in Charleston, South Carolina, Mary Green, who was recently reunited with her husband. They were separated not long after being evacuated from the New Orleans Superdome.

I welcome you all. We should note, Dr. Perez, you are joining us via cell phone. That nasty DC traffic caught you up and you couldn't make it to our studios, but we appreciate you joining us, and let me start with you. When you talk about people who are still some weeks after still not reunited with family members--I know many have reached out to the NAACP. This has been a daunting task, has it not?

Dr. LUCILLE PEREZ (National Director, NAACP Health Division): It has. It has. You know, what happened, the way families were separated, it was reminiscent of how we felt about the tearing of the family threads, so to speak, like slavery, in which people were actually--you know, mothers were sold from their children. I remember at the armory here in DC, one of the temporary shelters, I was able to sit and--with a father and his two grown sons and they were in Louisiana and they felt that the transportation, given the fact that so many of the efforts of FEMA and the Red Cross had been blundered, they were sending the women in the family with a trusted friend in a car. And they had planned to meet together in Dallas.

And so when people were being rounded up at the New Orleans airport, they got on a plane on their way to, they thought, Dallas. But, in fact, where they were going was Dulles.

GORDON: Hmm.

Dr. PEREZ: And so here the women in the family were on their...

GORDON: And we should note for people that don't know, Dulles...

Dr. PEREZ: ...way to Dallas.

GORDON: Yeah. We should note for people who don't know, Dulles Airport is in Washington, DC, actually in Virginia, outside of Washington.

Dr. PEREZ: Yes, Washington, DC.

GORDON: Let me ask this of Ann Scofield. Ann, we should note that some 883-84 children have, in fact, been reunited with their family. That's of last week. But here is the remarkable number. Some 2,300-plus kids still are reported missing from their parents. When you're dealing with this situation, and it has to be--I can't imagine being separated from my daughter and just not knowing, you know, where she is--how are people even holding up, those that are coming to you?

Ms. ANN SCOFIELD (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children): You're right, Ed, and thank you very much. This is a problem that we certainly are very sensitive to for families. We have involved not only our regular case management intake workers to respond, but also our family advocacy division, which staffs social workers and psychologists to respond to some of these questions. It is difficult, as Dr. Perez, indicated. It is tremendously widespread. The national center, at the request of the Department of Justice, extended our Katrina services, and to also Hurricane Rita. We actually placed one of our staff members, a case manager, at the DC Armory, to take firsthand reports of those who had been relocated to this area of reported missing persons, not only children but adults, as well.

What we tried to do at the national center was to build in a tremendously quick but rather adaptable infrastructure that includes a toll-free hot line to take reports, an exclusive database for cases, a dedicated Web page for missing children, at www.missingkids.com, and specific tools for search, external resources.

GORDON: We should also note--we'll get specific into the programs that the NAACP and your organization, Ms. Scofield, are running to make sure that people can go to if, in fact, they want to help and assist, perhaps they know where one relative is and we can reach out. We'll talk about that in just a moment.

Want to tell a happy story here. Mary Green was separated and, Ms. Scofield, you mentioned it's not just kids and their parents, but family members, in general. Mary Green was separate from her husband not long after being evacuated from the Superdome in New Orleans. Mary, quickly, tell us your story in terms of how you all were separated and we're happy to say you've been reunited.

Mr. MARY GREEN (Resident, Avondale, Louisiana): Yes. Me and my husband, we was in the Superdome with my mother and grandmother, so they started putting us on buses and they said they was going to take us to Houston. The bus I was on, me and him ended up on separate buses. He ended up in Charleston and I ended up in Houston, Texas. And we had cell phones so we kept trying to stay in contact with each other and we end up--the NAACP, I got in contact with them and told them that my husband was in Charleston and that I was in Houston and I needed to get to him in Charleston. So thank God and thank the NAACP, they give me a plane ticket from Houston to Charleston and I'm very happy to be back with my husband.

GORDON: Mary, before I ask Dr. Perez about that, because I know the NAACP has been providing transportation when they find people who need to be elsewhere to be reunited, but let me ask you, Mary, there are a lot of people who will wonder how, in fact, you guys were separated and were put on different buses. Was it so chaotic at the time? How, in fact, were you separated?

Ms. GREEN: They had--a lot of people was doing, like, pushing you and then you--you know, they had us in line, but you know how people get upset and they started pushing. So he end up on a different bus than I did. That's how we got separated.

GORDON: Dr. Perez, we hear from Mary, and it is hard to believe, but it was almost like a cattle herd...

Dr. PEREZ: Absolutely.

GORDON: ...when, in fact, people were being evacuated. Talk to me about the idea of the NAACP as they are often being able to be the organization to go to. I know that you are providing, in many cases, transportation to try to reunite people. And tell us about some of the other programs you're running.

Dr. PEREZ: Well, what the outstanding leadership under Bruce Gordon and Chairman Julian Bond, the NAACP's disaster relief structure was such that we had a shelter team, a health team, a clothing team, a food team, a search and legal team and a transition team. It was the search and legal team that provided assistance identifying, locating family members. So we worked with some of our national partners in terms of getting both airline and bus tickets to unite families. Our hot line, which was also for disaster relief assistance, but also to hear stories of how people were separated and how we could assist them. Our education, through one of our special location components, there were many students that we were able to find subsequent institutions where they could go to school and get their books and make sure that their life, as best as we could, would have some normalcy.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Dr. PEREZ: Some type of schedule, some security that people could hold on to.

GORDON: Yeah.

Dr. PEREZ: And, you know, one thing that I have to say about my colleagues, you know, the people who work at the national office--I'm a newcomer--I mean, not only--they worked tirelessly. People worked their day--regular day jobs and came back as volunteers, to answer the phone...

GORDON: Yeah.

Dr. PEREZ: ...to pray with people on the phone. And, you know, I'm just so proud of us.

GORDON: Yeah. We should note that--and we've had Mr. Gordon on a couple of times since Katrina hit and we'll have him on as you continue the effort--but, of late, the NAACP, over the course of the last few years, has sometimes suffered slings and arrows from others. And if ever you, you know, wanted to talk about this organization being vital in stepping up, they're showing their true colors this go round.

Ann Scofield, let me ask you about the Photo Project that your organization is dealing with. Talk to us about what people can do in terms of utilizing it.

Ms. SCOFIELD: Absolutely. We have developed partnerships around the country with tremendous aid from--through Canon, USA to take photographs of children and post those on our Web site, a vast Web site, that will stay up and stay current as long as there is a need. We certainly invite parents, if they have them, to get a photograph to a local Kinko's who will provide us that photograph immediately and we can put that up on our Web site. We're encouraged, Ed, that although more than 4,000 children have been reported missing, of that, some 1,400 have been recovered, cases have been resolved. We realize that that leaves us with a great deal of work yet to do.

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. SCOFIELD: But some 2,800 children are out there, perhaps in safe environments, but yet displaced from their families. And we will continue to work on it until those cases are resolved.

GORDON: Mary, how fearful were you when you were separated from your husband? I mean, obviously you said that you had cell phones and you knew that each other were safe in terms of living through the immediate flood, but how fearful were you once you were separated that, you know, it may take you a long time to find your husband again?

Ms. GREEN: It would have took longer than that because sometimes we would have contact with each other through the cell phone and then sometimes we didn't hear from each other for like two or three days at a time. He was wondering where I was at and what part of Houston I was in and I'm wondering where really he at in Charleston and we--you know, we were just like getting more worried about where each other was.

GORDON: Mary, what about other families members? Do you now know where all of your family members are?

Ms. GREEN: Yes.

GORDON: And you're staying in a residence in Charleston. Talk to me about where you're staying now.

Ms. GREEN: We are staying--the Red Cross got us at the Homestead Suite up in Charleston.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. What of other evacuees as you go through day-to-day? Do you have contact? Are you talking to them? And what of those stories you may be hearing of people who have not found other relatives?

Ms. GREEN: Yes. I was talking to one of the ladies that's in here, a couple of her kids, she still don't know where they are.

GORDON: Dr. Perez, we have to be mindful--I mean, we're still talking about--and Ann Scofield rightfully says that we have reunited a number of children. But when you look at the kids who are still out there who are either missing or missing their parents, we still, as a nation, need to, A, keep this on the front burner, and, B, be ready to deal with a fair amount of children that may, in fact, never be reunited with their parents, unfortunately.

Dr. PEREZ: Absolutely. And one of the things that Katrina pulled the covers off of, as has so eloquently been stated, we have got to do better. And this is not something that's short term. The post-traumatic stress issues associated with Katrina haven't even--they haven't unfolded yet. So we have got to assure--assure--for our brothers and sisters that were directly impacted by Katrina, that we are in this for the long haul.

GORDON: Yeah. Ann Scofield...

Dr. PEREZ: We are going to provide good, quality health-care services, which will include mental health services. And that we will be there for them...

GORDON: Yeah.

Dr. PEREZ: ...for--you know, until it's over.

GORDON: Yeah.

Dr. PEREZ: Until they have re-established their lives.

GORDON: Ann Scofield, let me ask you about the stress that this puts on just the organization, in and of itself--the national center has been dealing for years with missing and exploited children and, of course, you have to go on with the day-to-day of that, and now this added to what you normally do. Talk to me about the stress, not emotional stress, but the stress on the organization in terms of trying to fulfill both sides of the coin.

Ms. SCOFIELD: Certainly, Ed, the logistics have been enormous, as you can imagine. Our day-to-day operation for more than 20 years have been helping to find and recover missing children and reduce the incidence of sexual exploitation among children in our communities nationwide. And so with the added impact of this disaster, what we've had to do, and I believe we prepared adequately, is to reach out and bring in volunteers that we had recruited and solicited over the years, real skilled professionals, you might say, who are retired, law enforcement officers who have the time to give and also the skills and expertise to do the follow-up kinds of investigative tasks that are required to pursue leads...

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCOFIELD: ...follow up on a case and hopefully help reunite families. And with that in place, that structure in place, we have experienced a great deal of success and will continue to do so, as Dr. Perez has stated, for the long haul.

GORDON: Hey, Mary, let me ask you, you're in Charleston, South Carolina, right now. Do you plan to go back? Are you going to try to grow new roots in South Carolina? Have you even thought about what you want to do?

Ms. GREEN: Yes. I'm planning on going to New York 'cause that's where me and my husband was going to end up living. So that's where our plan's at...

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GREEN: ...to--continuing to get to New York.

GORDON: Hey, well, Mary, we are so glad that you were reunited with your husband and that all your family's safe and we continue to pray for those who are still looking for their missing loved ones and we're glad to be able to bring a happy story...

Ms. GREEN: Thanks.

GORDON: ...to our listeners. We've not been able to do that all the time and we're so happy for you. And good luck in the Big Apple, Mary.

Ms. GREEN: Thank you.

GORDON: All right.

Dr. PEREZ: I'm from the Big Apple, Mary.

GORDON: All right.

Dr. PEREZ: So I will--anything that I can do to help make you feel at home, please let me know.

Ms. GREEN: OK.

GORDON: All right. Mary, you hold...

Ms. SCOFIELD: And...

GORDON: ...Dr. Perez to that. She'll cook a cobbler for you or something. Ann Scofield, did you want to say--real quick for me.

Ms. SCOFIELD: Yes. Ed, I failed to identify those skilled professionals who are working tirelessly, that's members of the Project ALERT and the Team Adam Program we brought into our headquarters office as well as dispatched...

GORDON: All right.

Ms. SCOFIELD: ...around the country. We thank you so much for allowing us to participate in this panel discussion today.

GORDON: All right. We're glad to have you. Ann Scofield, Lucille Perez and Mary Green, thank you all very much.

Dr. PEREZ: Thank you.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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