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What's in a name? For one critical thing, safety

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

A network news show reported a Web site last week with more than 600 photos of children who were separated from their parents by Hurricane Katrina. Some are too young to know even their own name. Others don't know the names of relatives who may be able to help them.

Workers from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children are working alongside law enforcement officers to piece together information to help find family members to rescue these children.

It made me wonder: How much help would my own children be in that situation? What kind of information should I make sure my 3-year-old could give authorities?

Don Bower, a University of Georgia child development expert, offers these recommendations:

  • Be prepared. If possible, have vital information -- names, addresses, medical information -- written down and safely attached to children, especially preschoolers, who may not communicate well with strangers.
  • "In this situation," said Bower, a Cooperative Extension specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, "that wasn't always practical unless you could put it in a waterproof enclosure." Put the sealed information in a child's pocket, pin it to their clothes or put it on a bracelet or necklace. Don't have that information in public view.

  • Educate your child. By age 5, most children should be able to recite their name, address and phone number. That will help them work with rescue workers to contact family members. Because children younger than 5 may only know their caregivers or grandparents by nicknames like Grandma and Grandpa, it's essential to have the information in written form.
  • Teach children, too, to approach people in uniforms -- police, firefighters, military or EMS workers -- to ask for help in an emergency.

  • Schools can be critical. If children can identify the school they attend, that can be critical information to identify them. School officials would have information to help contact family members.
  • Have an identification kit. Parents should have a kit that includes their children's recent photos, physical descriptions (including easily identifiable marks like scars or birthmarks) and any medical conditions children may have or medications they may need.
  • "During the missing-and-murdered-children era in Atlanta, it became very popular to have your child fingerprinted," Bower said, referring to a period in the late 1970s and early '80s when 22 children disappeared in metro Atlanta. Many were later found murdered. "While there's nothing wrong with having a child's fingerprints on file, it shouldn't give parents a false sense of security."

    Connecting a child to a set of fingerprints and then back to a caregiver can be a long, time-consuming process. "It shouldn't be parents' only means of identifying their child," Bower said. "You need a more complete system."

    We should all know our medical status, no matter what age.

    "As we saw in the case of this hurricane disaster, there were lots of people, not just children, who showed up at medical facilities and knew they took regular medication, but had no idea what the medication was or what condition they had that required it," Bower said.

    "If you show up without medical history or medications, it's hard for medical personnel to help you," he said. "It's especially important to have this written down for kids."

    My parents once got a Christmas card mailed simply to Artis and Neta, Madison, Ga. No zip code, no street address, no last name. My oldest child now knows the names and phone numbers of most of our relatives. But "Artis and Neta, Madison, Ga.," could be my 3-year-old's ticket to safety.

    If you have family or friends in the hard-hit area, visit www.missingkids.com to see if you recognize any of these children. The authorities and the children need your help. You can also contact the Katrina Missing Persons Hotline (1-888-544-5475).

    (Faith Peppers is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

    (Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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