WASHINGTON – Efforts to locate 500 children still classified as missing after Hurricane Katrina are stalled because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, citing privacy laws, has refused to share its evacuee database with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, according to investigators tracking the cases.
Not until the White House and Justice Department intervened earlier this month did Department of Homeland Security officials agree to a compromise that grants FBI agents limited access to information that may provide clues to many of the unresolved cases.
In recent days, FEMA has released data that helped close 15 cases. On Thursday, after inquiries from the Washington Post, the agency sent the FBI a computer disk with the names of 570,000 evacuees.
But as the four-month anniversary of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history approaches, congressional leaders, law enforcement authorities and family advocates say FEMA’s slow response has meant that many families that could have been reunited this holiday season instead remain apart.
“We are deeply disappointed by the low priority FEMA assigned to the cases of missing children,” Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., wrote Thursday to FEMA’s acting director, David Paulison. “And while FEMA may not have sole responsibility to investigate cases of missing children, it should do what is in its power to assist other agencies in completing the investigations.”
Officials believe it is likely that many of the 500 children are safe, perhaps even in the care of a family member. But a case is not closed until the relative who reported the child missing learns the youngster’s whereabouts and is assured the child is unharmed.
Under U.S. privacy laws, FEMA is prohibited from releasing information such as names and Social Security numbers to anyone.
“The information that people provide us when they are in the midst of, or recovering from, a life-altering event includes Social Security number, income levels, very personal information,” said FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews. “We take our charge to protect that information very seriously.”
Cornelius Armstead, 25, said he has spent the past four months wondering and worrying about what happened to his 2-year-old son, who was with his mother a mile away when New Orleans flooded.
“The storm came. We all evacuated. I don’t know which way they went,” he said, recounting his frantic attempt to get to the housing project where his son and the child’s mother lived. “I tried to get to them, but the water rose so high.”
After calling the Red Cross, several shelters and acquaintances, Armstead said, he dialed the missing-children hotline, 800-THE-LOST. “I call it every day,” he said.
When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the Justice Department and Louisiana officials asked the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to handle missing-person reports.
At the height of the chaos, the hotline received 5,500 reports of missing children. Many cases were particularly challenging because few families had managed to save photographs of the children. Others could not provide a telephone number or a permanent address, said the center’s president, Ernie Allen. Time was critical, he said, because “we know predators will seek out these unaccompanied, unprotected children.”
Although the majority of children are likely to be with adults, some may be with a relative who does not have legal custody.