Children Now Insider: When natural disasters strike, immediate support is critical

This is especially true for children and youth in foster care and their caregivers

By Susanna Kniffen
Senior Director, Child Welfare

November 7, 2019

Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy

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California is in the midst of a devastating fire season that is displacing thousands of people and leaving many of them without homes to go back to. Sadly, what was once a rare occurrence has become a new reality in our state. In the aftermath, once the fires are contained, and evacuation orders are lifted, families continue to need resources and support, so that they can rebuild and recover after such tragic losses.

While everyone struggles in the face of natural disasters, foster children and their caregivers deal with a unique set of challenges after a fire or earthquake. For example, families forced to evacuate may leave their towns and move in with friends or relatives in other parts of the state. For a foster family, this is not always an option; children in the foster care system need to live near their biological families, often have court hearings or therapy sessions to attend, and have a right to attend their school of origin. These rules are designed to create stability and minimize disruption for a child who is already suffering from the trauma of family separation, but can become hurdles when evacuation is necessary and resources are limited. As a result, it can be more critical to these families that they have access to safe and immediate options for temporary shelter.

For two decades, Andre and Sharon lived in Paradise and served as foster parents. When the Camp Fire broke out, they were fostering a set of two siblings. Having lost their home in the fire, the family had to relocate a significant distance away. In order to get both girls to their schools, Andre and Sharon had to drive more than 100 miles round trip each day. Other long commutes were also required for other appointments for the girls. The costs associated with the extensive driving placed a significant financial burden on Andre and Sharon. 

And then there are the costs to consider. Foster families have opened their homes to children who are in need of shelter and support, yet they do not receive additional funding from the state during times of emergency. This means that any extra costs, including transportation to and from a temporary home to appointments and school, will place an undue burden on a foster family, at a time when resources are stretched thin and emotions run high.

We must also consider the impact on transition-age youth – young people between the ages of 16-21 who are in the foster care system – who are often without families to turn to when something happens. These youth often experience poor outcomes, including low rates of educational attainment and higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, and trauma-related physical and mental health issues than their peers, and during times of crisis, they need access to support and services immediately. Unfortunately, there are no standard protocols in place to address their needs currently, and agencies are bridging the gap by coming up with ad hoc solutions in the moment. However, these solutions are not sustainable, and vary depending on local capacity and funding.

Before the Camp Fire struck Butte County, Steven was living in an apartment for transition-age foster youth in Paradise, California and working at a grocery store in a nearby community. Though he lacked personal transportation, Steven commuted to his job each day by taking the bus or occasionally getting rides from co-workers that lived nearby. He lost his residence in the fire and was forced to evacuate to Chico, where he eventually found housing. The additional distance, however, prevented him from commuting to work at the grocery store and he lost his job. He has struggled since then to find steady employment.  

We cannot ignore the needs of children and youth in foster care, or their caregivers, especially in the critical moments during and after a natural disaster. We must establish better disaster planning for this vulnerable population, across counties and regions, as well as the state as whole, in order to ensure we are prepared before the next crisis. It’s crucial that local agencies and emergency responders are aware of the foster families in their region, so that they can be connected to resources that are tailored to address their unique needs.

No one is left unscathed during fire season, but some members of our community need additional support in order to survive and rebuild – their homes, lives and relationships – after incredibly challenging times. It is up to us to ensure these children, youth and caregivers are not left behind, and speak up for them, so that their voices are heard.