Because of Hurricane Katrina, Gene Ceasar's seven children have now heard the most horrific stories of their young lives -- gruesome tales of murder, starvation and rape along the itinerant route from evacuation to survival.
The stories came in unexpected bunches, spread by heedless strangers traveling the same nomadic path that took Ceasar's family from New Orleans's Third Ward to the Louisiana Superdome, from the Superdome to a Dallas shelter. By then, Ceasar's 6-year-old daughter was having nightmares and wetting her cot, unable to sleep through her fright. She had become so distressed by unverified accounts of children being sexually molested inside the Superdome's restrooms that you couldn't "pay her to go to the bathroom," her father said.
For most kids, the life-or-death battles against high floodwaters were traumatic enough. But an untold consequence of Hurricane Katrina, is the added damage done to kids by the terrifying folklore that followed the storm, according to child welfare experts who have worked with such children. With the nation's attention and resources heavily concentrated on resettling families and rebuilding the Gulf region, mental health professionals worry that the emotional needs of children are not being adequately addressed.
"There are really not enough people on the ground doing the kind of counseling needed to prevent long-term problems," said James Radack, who is directing the National Mental Health Association's response to Katrina. Radack's assessment is based on field reports received from some of the association's 340 affiliates, which have been working directly with families and children who lost their homes because of Katrina.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 372,000 children -- from kindergarten through high school -- were displaced by the storm. Based on studies and patterns observed in other catastrophic events, the National Mental Health Association estimates that 30 percent of Katrina's kids -- or roughly 112,000 -- are likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
In Dallas, a loose network of child psychologists, social workers, "play therapists," pediatricians and others with specific experience caring for children banded together early on to provide what one described as "ongoing emotional first aid." They began their work in the shelters and are now meeting with children and parents at schools, recreation centers, churches -- even the hotel rooms that are serving as temporary lodging.
The greatest concern, according to Libby Kay, a clinical social worker at Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, is the "re-traumatization" of children who have heard harrowing storm-related tales multiple times. "It doesn't ever leave them if it's talked about over and over again," she said.
Many adults can't seem to help themselves. Their experiences were so absorbing, so surreal, that they became like narrators of an R.L. Stine "Goosebumps" serial. For some, the retelling was cathartic. But many adults didn't bother censoring themselves; often they didn't even notice kids in their presence as they spun their vivid accounts.
Samuel Pitts, a 47-year-old displaced New Orleans carpenter, was near children in a Dallas shelter when he volunteered what he had witnessed inside the Superdome. He said he watched a woman break a bottle on the head of an elderly man who had allegedly molested a child. Next, a group of young men started beating the man. "They kept beating him, stomping him, kicking him, punching him," Pitts recounted, his eyes widening, his hands and legs reenacting the punishment. The man's face was bleeding badly, Pitts recalled. At this point in the story, Pitts noticed 11-year-old Keith Devlin in front of him, shooed the boy away and continued his story.
"I'm more than sure he died," Pitts said of the bloody man.
An incident strikingly similar to the one Pitts described has been widely reported and authenticated by other eyewitnesses. But many other stories have turned out to be untrue, or, at the very least, suspect. Whether the stories that were trafficked -- on overpasses, during bus rides, in the shelters -- are wholly true, partially true or just urban mythology is beside the point, the children's specialists say.
"Rumors get into people's heads, and once they think they're not safe, they're not safe," said Laurel Wagner, a Dallas child psychologist who has worked closely with families displaced by Katrina. "From a children's perspective, no adult went around and corrected [the rumors]. And worse, some adults perpetuated the rumors."
Many parents -- too frazzled attending to basic necessities such as housing, clothing and employment -- felt they couldn't devote time to their children's emotional needs. Taylor Taylor, a self-employed hair braider from the Magnolia public housing development in New Orleans, had focused her energies on getting resettled in Homer, La. She knew her 9-year-old son, Sean, had been "traumatized," in her words. But, as she put it: "He'll be doing better when we leave."
The Taylors were staying in temporary housing in Dallas, but Sean was not doing so well. He had seen some "really, really bad things" in the Superdome, he said, things that bothered him. Like what? "Dead bodies." Dead bodies? Was he sure he saw dead bodies? "I kept poking a man and he never woke up," Sean said. "People were pitching a rock at the man and he never woke up."
The professionals who have been counseling the children have employed deep-breathing exercises, sketch pads, bubbles, dolls, action figures, books with heroes. "Children work out their trauma through play," said Wagner. "For children, play is their work."
In a downtown Dallas shelter, a portable basketball court was set up. Toenail-painting sessions for the girls were organized. A few kids, restless amid the confines of the shelter, invented a new form of entertainment: They borrowed the wheelchairs of the elderly to pop wheelies.
Many of Katrina's children have now successfully made the transition to Dallas area schools. But others are struggling. Of the 2,300 student-evacuees inherited by the Dallas Independent School District, an estimated 20 to 25 percent need intensive counseling or other mental health assistance, according to a top school administration official.
Rosemarie Allen, a psychologist and an associate superintendent of the school district, said the symptoms that worry officials most include sleeplessness, lack of appetite, headaches, mysterious stomach ailments, isolation and fear.
Some of the Katrina students are uncomfortable interacting with pupils in their new schools, and vice versa. At times, this has caused friction.
Alton Netter, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from New Orleans, quickly discovered how cruel some kids could be at his new Dallas school. "The Texas dudes be ripping us: 'Ah, hah, that's why New Orleans is in the water. That's why y'all poor.' They be mad because all the girls be liking us."
For some children, Katrina only deepened their despondency. Their lives had been upended long before Katrina.
Two years ago, Stuart Joseph's older brother was gunned down in the New Orleans housing project where the family lived. Three months later, Stuart's grandfather died. This summer, Stuart's older sister died after a long illness. Now, as his mother, Linda Joseph, put it to him: "It's just you and me. Right, Stuart?"
Stuart, 15, nodded yes. He was never much for words, and now he barely speaks at all. Withdrawal is one of the most common behavioral traits observed by psychologists and social workers who have been working with hurricane-displaced children.
On a recent day, Stuart was tagging along with his mother as she went from line to line trying to tap the assistance available at a disaster recovery center run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Her top priority was getting the two of them housing in a Dallas suburb, while Stuart's top priority was just getting to a gym. He had been a budding star on his New Orleans high school football team, but he hadn't worked out in a while. At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, he certainly had size for a 10th-grader. And a chiseled physique, as anyone could see through the sleeveless T-shirt he was wearing. But he wasn't sure what to expect at his new high school.
He was biting his fingernails incessantly, and he barely had any. His mother, in a strange way, seemed thankful. "Something happened to New Orleans for a reason," she said. "God has plucked us out of New Orleans for a reason."
Stuart couldn't see that reason at the moment. He couldn't manage to answer any questions about his feelings or his future, only a head shake or two. It was too tough to talk right now.
Did he want to return to New Orleans?
Yes, Stuart nodded.