Authorities trying to track down more than 2,600 children in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama still missing three weeks after Hurricane Katrina believe that most of them are not really "missing."
Rather, authorities said, the vast majority of these children are "lost" -- separated from a parent or guardian during the rush to rescue hurricane victims from rooftops and shelters, when families were divided because of lack of space on a bus or helicopter.
"They're not missing in the traditional sense," said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has taken on the task of finding the children and reuniting families.
The Alexandria-based center is working with sheriffs, police officers and FBI agents from across the country who have volunteered to help with the enormous caseload, and is partnering with CNN, which has been airing photos of missing children. As of yesterday, the center had resolved 966 out of 3,600 Hurricane Katrina cases, Allen said.
The number of cases continues to grow, Allen said, as more families learn where they can report missing children. The center has logged about 17,000 calls to a Katrina victim toll-free hotline (1-888-544-5475) and receives an average of 1 million hits a day from around the world on its Web site (www.missingkids.com). The site includes links to sites and numbers for those looking to locate adults among the hundreds still unaccounted for in Louisiana and Mississippi.
"The vast majority of the cases in our judgment are what we would call 'fractured families,' " said Allen, including instances in which evacuees ended up in one state and their children in another. He cited several examples of people reporting children missing, only to discover they were safe with a relative who did not know how to find the parents.
"We got a call from parents of a 7-year-old separated from her mother in the storm," Allen said. "We put the photos on the air and on our Web site, and the child's grandmother called and said, 'I have her.' That is a pretty good illustration of the kind of situation we're seeing."
Allen added that there is likely a relatively small number of cases in which children reported missing did not survive the storm.
There are also probably some children in the custody of people with whom they do not belong, Allen said.
In some cases, children whose parents have not been located have ended up in foster care. The state of Louisiana, as of last week, had placed in foster care 50 children whose parents had not been located, with 35 of the children found in shelters in Texas and the remainder in shelters in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.
"We're working on these one case at a time, doing old-fashioned gumshoe detective work," Allen said. "Every report we get, we have to treat as if it's potentially serious and the child is at risk."
The center has specialized in helping police across the country find children who were abducted by family members or strangers.
"This is more about reunification and repairing," Allen said. "But it's extremely urgent. If you're separated from your child in a supermarket or department store for 10 minutes, it's something you never forget. Here are parents who are separated from their children for three weeks and don't know where they are."