Online Extra: Q and A with Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie: October/November 2009
Interview by Molly Ramsdell
National Commission on Children and Disasters Commissioner, Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, was elected to the Nevada General Assembly in 1998, and currently serves as majority whip. She is employed as the Specialty Courts Coordinator for the 2nd Judicial District Court, managing a variety of problem-solving courts.
Leslie is the chair of the National Commission on Children and Disaster’s Education, Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Subcommittee. In Nevada, she chairs the statutory Committee on Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice, and is the vice-chair of Ways and Means. Leslie has worked on behalf of Nevada children, youth and families for more than 25 years.
State Legislatures: What led to the creation of this commission? Why is it important to focus specifically on children’s needs in a disaster?
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie: For too long there has been a pattern of “benign neglect” toward children in disaster planning, preparedness, response and recovery. The consequences of the benign neglect become magnified when children are disproportionately affected by disasters. For example, 5,192 children were reported missing or displaced to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and it took six-and-a-half months to reunite the last child separated from her family.
More recently, in April 2009, the H1N1 flu outbreak quickly illustrated this point when it was clear that children were disproportionately affected. Despite extensive planning for a much larger flu pandemic affecting the general population, the public health concerns of children created by the H1N1 outbreak prompted school and day care closings, creating challenges for accurate and timely communication to school administrators, child care operators, and parents, and economic consequences for families, small businesses and communities. H1N1 serves as a stark reminder of the central position children hold in the family and community.
Coupled with the more than doubling in the average number of presidential-declared disasters annually over the past two decades you have a very compelling case to look more intently at the issues surrounding children and disasters.
Congress created the commission under federal law as a bipartisan, independent body. We have two years to look at all disasters, during each phase (preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery), across all levels of government and community to determine where the gaps in policy and services continue to exist. The commission reported its findings and recommendations to the President and Congress in an October 2009 Interim Report. A final report is due October 2010.
SL: What are some steps state lawmakers can make to assess and address gaps in their state’s services to children before, during and after a disaster?
Leslie: Mark Shriver, chairperson of the commission, and I hosted an issue forum at the 2009 NCSL Legislative Summit in Philadelphia. Our central message to state lawmakers was and still remains: States play a pivotal role in the delivery of disaster services. Isn’t it time for state legislators to examine their state’s level of preparedness for meeting the unique needs of children?
An assessment of states’ plans led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found on average that states had “many major gaps” in their influenza plans in 16 of 22 priority areas and specifically citing school closure policies and community containment. Lawmakers in a number of states have decided that this is a good time to review regulations concerning emergency planning for child care providers, facilities and schools.
States should not only consider how they will provide pediatric specific protocols for public health events, but for all hazards. Children have many unique anatomic, physiologic, immunologic, developmental, and psychological considerations that potentially affect their vulnerability to injury and response in a disaster. While each state and community has to determine their best course of action, there are number of items state legislators should think about. (See main story: Kids and the Flu)
Here in Nevada, the statutory Committee on Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice, composed of a bipartisan group of Assembly members and Senators appointed by the Legislative Commission, will hold a special hearing to consider testimony and recommendations to strengthen disaster planning in these public agencies and develop potential legislation for the next regular session of the Nevada Legislature in February 2011.
SL: What are some highlighted recommendations state lawmakers should be aware of included in the October 2009 Interim Report?
Leslie: The commission is tasked by Congress with identifying barriers and potential solutions within a wide range of issues including: physical and mental health; elementary and secondary education; child welfare; child care; housing (sheltering, intermediate and long term); evacuation and transportation; juvenile justice; and relevant areas in emergency management.
The Interim Report identifies several shortcomings in disaster preparedness, response and recovery and provides recommendations designed to make children an immediate priority in disaster planning. Most disaster planning fails to address the unique needs of children. This means the unique needs of children are less likely to be considered when medicines are developed, when school and child care staff are trained, and when families are separated in the aftermath of a disaster. Children are at most risk during a disaster when they are away from their families and, in fact, 67 million children are in schools or child care on any given week day making them particularly vulnerable.
The commission is examining the performance of government and non-governmental organizations supporting the needs of children. Some key recommendations include:
- Incorporating children as an immediate priority within the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
- Adopting national disaster planning standards for facilities that serve or house children, such as schools, group homes and juvenile justice centers.
- Adopting national standards to provide a safe and secure emergency shelter environment for children, including access to age-appropriate services and supplies.
- Requiring state child care regulatory agencies to include disaster planning, training and exercising requirements within the scope of the state’s minimum health and safety standards for child care licensure or registration.
- Integrating child mental and behavioral health training into preparedness and response activities.
SL: Now that the Interim Report has been submitted, what will the next 12 months look like for the commission’s work? What issue areas will the commission address for its Final Report in October 2010?
SL: Over the next year, the commission will continue developing and refining the recommendations present in its Interim Report. It will also continue to search for creative solutions to many of the complex issues that have already been identified. The commission hopes that many of the recommendations contained in its Interim Report will be implemented before the final report ever goes to print. The commission will continue to collaborate with government agencies and non-governmental partners and will track the progress that these organizations make toward implementation of the recommendations the Commission has issued to date.
In addition, the commission will delve more deeply into topics including:
- Ensuring that the needs of children are met in mass evacuations and disaster housing
- Ensuring that state juvenile justice and child welfare agencies, as well as all residential, correctional and detention facilities, foster homes and group homes that house children within these state systems, are properly prepared for disasters.
- Ensuring the availability and access to pediatric medical countermeasures at the federal, state and local level for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats.
- Ensuring that children’s health and mental health needs are met during all phases of a disaster.
Finally, the commission plans to hold fileds hearings plus a national meeting in February 2010 with invitations to federal, state, local, nongovernmental and private sector stakeholders to discuss progress in the implementation of the Interim Report recommendations and identify gaps and policy solutions for inclusion in the commission’s final report. We look forward to having representatives from NCSL at this meeting and continuing our close working partnership on behalf of children.
SL: What motivated you to serve on the commission?
Leslie: I was deeply honored when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada's senior senator, asked me to consider an appointment to this prestigious commission. I’ve worked closely with Senator Reid on numerous children and family issues over the years, and share his concerns for the well-being and protection of children. As a state legislator, I want to translate the national effort into action at the state level, knowing that each state has its unique needs, concerns, and infrastructure. We can’t afford to let these recommendations sit on a shelf in Washington, D.C. We need to ensure that children in each of our states are included in every facet of disaster planning.