Efforts to locate 500 children still classified as missing after Hurricane Katrina are stalled because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, citing privacy laws, has refused to share its evacuee database with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, according to investigators tracking the cases.
Not until the White House and Justice Department intervened earlier this month did Department of Homeland Security officials agree to a compromise that grants FBI agents limited access to information that may provide clues to many of the unresolved cases.
In recent days, FEMA has released data that helped close 15 cases. Yesterday, after inquiries from The Washington Post, the agency sent the FBI a computer disk with the names of 570,000 evacuees.
But as the four-month anniversary of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history approaches, congressional leaders, law enforcement authorities and family advocates say FEMA's slow response has meant that many families that could have been reunited this holiday season instead remain apart.
"We are deeply disappointed by the low priority FEMA assigned to the cases of missing children," Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) wrote yesterday to FEMA's acting director, R. David Paulison. "And while FEMA may not have sole responsibility to investigate cases of missing children, it should do what is in its power to assist other agencies in completing the investigations."
Officials believe it is likely that many of the 500 children are safe, perhaps even in the care of a family member. But a case is not closed until the relative who reported the child missing learns the youngster's whereabouts and is assured the child is unharmed.
Under U.S. privacy laws, FEMA is prohibited from releasing information such as names and Social Security numbers to anyone.
"The information that people provide us when they are in the midst of, or recovering from, a life-altering event includes Social Security number, income levels, very personal information," said FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews. "We take our charge to protect that information very seriously."
Cornelius J. Armstead, 25, said he has spent the past four months wondering and worrying about what happened to his 2-year-old son, who was with his mother a mile away when New Orleans flooded.
"The storm came. We all evacuated. I don't know which way they went," he said, recounting his frantic attempt to get to the housing project where his son and the child's mother lived. "I tried to get to them, but the water rose so high."
After calling the Red Cross, several shelters and acquaintances, Armstead said, he dialed the missing-children hotline, 800-THE-LOST. "I call it every day," he said.
Fear of child predators
When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the Justice Department and Louisiana officials asked the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to handle missing-person reports.
At the height of the chaos, the hotline received 5,500 reports of missing children. Many cases were particularly challenging because few families had managed to save photographs of the children. Others could not provide a telephone number or a permanent address, said the center's president, Ernie Allen. Time was critical, he said, because "we know predators will seek out these unaccompanied, unprotected children."
Although the majority of children are likely to be with adults, some may be with a relative who does not have legal custody of the child. Some may be runaway teens, said Walter Fahr, manager of the Louisiana Clearinghouse for Missing and Exploited Children. Other scenarios are worse, he said.
"We are working on at least one case in which the mother says the child was with her evacuating from New Orleans in the floodwaters and the child slipped out of a life vest," he said. "She's still hanging on to the hope this child is alive."
The center, created by Congress 21 years ago to serve as a quasi-governmental clearinghouse for missing children, dispatched teams of former law enforcement officers to the four affected states and negotiated agreements with the Red Cross and U.S. Postal Service to share evacuee information.
In early October, as leads began to dwindle, the center requested access to FEMA's list of the 2.8 million families that had applied for federal disaster assistance. FEMA balked, saying it was illegal to share the private information. Lawyers at the center argued that because it was working on behalf of the Justice Department "it would fall within one of the exceptions of the Privacy Act for this limited purpose," Allen said. For years, investigators for the center have had access to FBI databases.
On Oct. 25, the center provided the list of 1,600 children missing at the time to FEMA and made its request for the database in writing. On Nov. 23, nearly three months after Katrina hit, FEMA rejected it.
FEMA did, however, run the center's names of missing children through its computers. It found 652 instances in which at least one identifier -- such as a surname or address -- matched an entry on the center's missing persons list, Andrews said. FEMA staff spent the weekend of Dec. 3 calling all 652. They reached 505 and made about 80 "exact matches," she said.
But experts at the center and the FBI said FEMA's social workers are not trained to resolve difficult cases, such as those in which the custody of the child is in dispute.
"That's not what FEMA's business is; that's what the national center does and what the FBI does," said David Johnson, chief of the FBI's Crimes Against Children Unit. "I would want somebody who knows something about children's issues from a criminal perspective talking to the person and child, doing more verification."
When FEMA finally agreed to turn over its list of matches, it contained only 150 names, he said, of which 15 resulted in locating a missing child.
On Dec. 5, White House aides and an official at the Justice Department pressed FEMA to turn over more records, according to congressional investigators and a letter from a high-ranking Justice official.
Soon after, a trickle of additional names began arriving from FEMA, Allen said. Finally, the FBI received the list of 570,000 names, although about half appear to be duplicates, Allen said.
Yesterday evening, according to the center, the FBI searched that list for Armstead's son and the child's mother, Tyra McElvin. There was no match.