BATON ROUGE, La. – In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some families were forced to enact the most gut-wrenching of escape strategies: separating children from parents to get everyone out of harm’s way.

“The circumstances were so dire,” said Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, that at some crowded evacuation points parents were told to “pass all of the babies forward. Things were in such a state of confusion trying to get people to safety.”

As a result, about 2,800 children have been reported separated from parents or caretakers since the storm. Of those, about 760 have been reunited, according to figures released by the center Friday.

The center is operating a Web site, www.missingkids.com, which has photos of children reported missing. The Red Cross, state social services departments, local law enforcement agencies and the FBI are also working to reunite families with the approximately 2,050 children identified as not yet located.

“When you see all these people working on it, I feel hopeful that people will be reunited,” first lady Laura Bush said Friday at the center’s headquarters in Alexandria, Va.

Marketa Garner Gautreau, assistant secretary for Louisiana’s Office of Community Services, said the number of children reported missing to the national group may be inflated because a child could be with one parent without the other’s knowledge.

When relatives or guardians cannot be located, the state is authorized to assume custody of the child and place him or her into foster care. Gautreau said 50 children have been placed into foster care since Katrina hit. She said 35 of those children were found in shelters in Texas and the remainder came from shelters in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Gautreau said officials are still attempting to locate 500 foster children missing in the wake of Katrina.

Those working to reunite children with parents say they are inspired by the success stories. McBride said she met with a family at a Red Cross shelter in Palm Beach County, Fla., that was reunited Wednesday, more than two weeks after the hurricane hit. The three children were taken to the Astrodome in Houston, while the parents were brought to the Florida shelter.

McBride suspects that some endings won’t be happy. “We know many people didn’t survive and we don’t know how many yet,” McBride said. “That’s going to impact children in shelters.”

In Louisiana, 2,560 children have been reported missing by parents or have reported themselves missing, and 691 of those have been reunited with family as of Friday at noon, according to Oname Thompson, communications coordinator of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In Mississippi, 217 children were reported missing and 66 were reunited with family. In Alabama, 35 children were reported missing and three were reunited with family.

The center is also keeping tracks of adults reported missing: 7,565 since Katrina, while 1,016 of those reported missing have been found.


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