Mother and son reunited

Reuniting with Children in Emergencies

Separation from one’s family during or after an emergency can have mental and physical effects on children. The faster children reunite with the people they know and love, the better their outcomes will be.

What is Reunification?

Reunification is the process of ensuring that children return to the care of their parent(s) and family as quickly as possible after an emergency.

The vast majority of parents in the United States work outside the home. An estimated 69 million children in the United States are in school or child care on any given weekday. Emergencies increase the possibility for children to become separated from their parents or legal guardians. During the evacuation or sheltering process, parents may find that they are at work and their children are in child care, school, a recreational facility, or other location.

How to Reunite with Your Children

A family emergency plan will have important information, such as phone numbers, emergency contacts, and multiple meeting places. School and childcare centers will also have emergency plans in place to reunite children with their loved ones following an emergency.

Until families are reunited after an emergency, it is important to stay informed of emergency warnings and updates. Social media will play a key role in providing information, and children who use social media can use functions on Facebook, for example, to let their loved ones know they are safe.

It may be necessary to use additional reunification resources, such as the American Red Cross’ Reconnecting Families program, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 24-hour hotline, or FEMA’s information page for reunification systems.

Wake-up call from Hurricane Katrina

Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s hotline for those events received over 34,000 calls. In addition, it took six months to reunify 5,192 missing children and their families. The worst storm in U.S. history forced more than 300,000 children to enroll in new schools around the country, sometimes very far from the communities they once knew.

As the National Commission on Children and Disasters, the Institute of Medicine, and other experts have noted, children “are not simply small adults,” and emergency management planning and policies must address their unique needs.

Importance of Planning

Emergencies can happen at any time and anywhere. On any given weekday, an estimated 69 million children are in school and child care, and they may be particularly vulnerable because they are away from their families. Schools, childcare facilities, and families can help keep children safe by having emergency preparedness plans in place.

For Schools

Emergencies can happen during the school day. Educators and school administrators play important roles in helping children stay safe before, during, and after emergencies. In addition to fire drills, many schools hold lockdown drills in response to the increasing number of school shootings. These drills, also known as shelter-in-place drills or active shooter drills, help students and staff practice staying safe in the event of a potential emergency, such as an armed intruder.

The following are planning resources for schools:

  • School Crisis Guide from the National Education Association includes resources for preparing for, reacting to, and responding to a crisis.

For Childcare Providers

Childcare providers play a vital role in keeping children safe. This is especially true in emergencies. It is important that childcare providers prepare and are ready to protect the children in their care. Many childcare facilities also have lockdown drills to protect children and adults in the event of an emergency. These procedures vary by state.

The following are planning resources for childcare providers:

For Families

It is important that children know what to do in an emergency. Having a plan to reunite with family members is an important part of any emergency preparedness plan. Ask all family members, including children, to help make an emergency plan. Choose a meeting spot. Make emergency contact cards for children to carry in their school bag or backpack. Help older children memorize important names and phone numbers (parents, other trusted adult).

Parents and caretakers can learn about the school safety drills that are taking place in their child’s school or childcare facility from the school principal and safety officials. Since lockdown drills vary by state, you may also look on your state’s Department of Education webpage.

The following are planning resources for families:

Additional Resources