Child Welfare in the Storm: What Happens to Vulnerable Families after a Disaster?

The day after Hurricane Sandy blew through the eastern seaboard, a social worker in Manhattan was frantic to track down a little girl on Long Island. The child is 2 years old and lives with her foster mother in a neighborhood that had been slammed by the storm. She had a tracheotomy when she was a baby, and needs a feeding tube to eat and an oxygen machine to breath. No one knew whether the family had been evacuated or where they were.

When the social worker finally reached the foster mother, it turned out she was at home, without heat or electricity. She’d been trekking to a nearby hospital to keep the girl’s medical equipment battery pack charged. “It wasn’t sustainable,” says Arlene Goldsmith, executive director of the child’s foster care agency, New Alternatives for Children. “But we hated the idea of separating her from the foster mother. That’s the last thing you want.” Instead, the agency—which had sent its fleet of seven vans to Connecticut to fill up on gas—was able to get hold of a generator. Once she had power, the foster mother also took in the girl’s brother, who’d been made homeless by the storm.

Even in normal times, child welfare is largely a system of crisis management: The city pays social service agencies not only to find foster homes for kids, but to provide services that prevent families from falling apart, working with parents before they come at risk of losing their children.

After Hurricane Sandy, which spawned many thousands of crises, child welfare workers became first responders, finding the families on their rolls and making sure kids were okay. New Alternatives for Children, which serves kids with serious medical needs, sent social workers and nurses to families’ homes, carrying long underwear and sleeping bags. “Our kids can’t get cold,” says Goldsmith.

Other agencies used city vans or sent caseworkers on foot to check on children considered to be at high risk. Good Shepherd Services, a foster care and preventive services agency that covers much of the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, turned one of its buildings into a distribution center for food and clothing donations. “Something like this shows how important it is that organizations are in communities, with infrastructure and staff,” says Michelle Yanche, an assistant executive director at Good Shepherd. “It’s a phenomenal example of how that infrastructure can be used to support communities in an emergency and stabilize people in a crisis.”

Natural disasters don’t discriminate. Sandy trashed million-dollar homes in Belmar, New Jersey  just as thoroughly as public housing in Far Rockaway. But the aftermath exacerbates the disparities that exist before the storm arrives. The people who end up most desperate and stay that way longest are usually those closest to crisis in the first place: Senior citizens who get trapped in their apartments after the elevators stop working in their buildings. Poor families with dependent kids who have nowhere to go but a shelter.

Last week—12 days after the storm—homebound residents in Red Hook Houses, a 30-building public housing development, were still dependent on meals and medication delivered by volunteers twice a day. A 7-year-old girl opened the door to the apartment where she lives there with her grandmother, whose electric wheelchair hadn’t worked since the power went out. Neighbors had been walking the girl to school in the morning. After dark, she bolted the locks and stayed inside. Without lights in the hallways, rumors were spreading through the building about attacks and home invasions. Several residents had heard that a 12-year-old girl was raped in a stairwell.

Many volunteers, who’ve been headquartered in Red Hook since the day after the storm, say they feel like they’re helping people who’ve been abandoned by the city. In addition to meal deliveries, they’ve set up a medical clinic, brought in lawyers to help with aid applications and kept track of residents who need ice to keep insulin cold. Last week, they installed solar powered lights in public housing hallways, days before the city managed to install freestanding streetlights on sidewalks. Their work has been coordinated largely by the Red Hook Initiative, a youth empowerment organization, and the all-volunteer group Occupy Sandy.

“People who were neglected before are neglected now. It’s not surprising,” said Hagar Aviram, a resident of Bed Stuy who’d spent the day coordinating a food distribution kitchen in Red Hook. “I heard the mayor was organizing a cleanup in Central Park, when old people here are still stuck in their rooms. It’s like ‘What are you doing? Where are you?’”

Yesterday, two weeks after the storm, Mayor Bloomberg set up recovery centers in some of the city’s most damaged neighborhoods, where storm victims can get ‘one-stop’ help with financial assistance applications and emergency services.

Even after the debris is cleared and the power comes back, the city’s storm crisis will almost surely spill into its housing crisis, which existed long before Sandy came. The number of children and families in city-run homeless shelters has been at a record high for more than a year. The city continues to operate five emergency shelters for storm evacuees, but nobody has a good estimate on the number of families who will become homeless long-term.

All of which raises another set of child welfare implications: While homelessness, on its own, is not a legal justification for removing families’ children and putting them in foster care, it often leads to chaos and instability, which put families at greater risk. “The reality is that when families are in crisis and when their housing becomes precarious, it does trigger more [child protective] cases,” says Yanche of Good Shepherd Services.

“When families are in the shelters they’re more subject to ACS scrutiny and to public scrutiny in general,” says Mike Arsham, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a self-help and advocacy organization for parents with kids in the foster care system. “Things that would not normally be considered risk factors can get you in trouble. You aren’t allowed to leave older children alone, even momentarily. Or if you have a loud argument, it ups the ante for child-protective-involved families,” Arsham says.

Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Ronald Richter says the city is committed to avoiding an increase in child removals. “I’m hopeful that doesn’t happen,” he says. “Our goal is never to remove a child, but to connect families to the services they need. We certainly don’t want to see children who’ve experienced Sandy experience the trauma of removal.”

Richter says the city’s preventive services system has the capacity to provide help to families who’ve been destabilized by the storm. The challenge will be to target services to the areas that have been the most badly hurt. “These kids have already been through trauma and displacement,” says Richter. “Our job is to get them the help they need to recover.”