Child Life Disaster Relief

As the child life field continues to grow, specialists are recognizing the need to help families in the community that have been affected by a natural disaster or crisis.  I am thrilled to see fellow colleagues develop a response team called Child Life Disaster Relief.

We are featuring them on the blog today to share information about the team and how you can get involved!
Child Life Disaster Relief Who We Are:

We are a group of 6 certified child life specialists from around the country working on coordinating efforts to expand child life services into the field of disaster relief.


Our Mission:

We believe our child life skills and expertise has a unique value within the field of disaster relief. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association (2015), the best evidenced based interventions for children after a disaster include the following:

  • Implemented by individuals who are trained and have experience working with crisis, disaster response, PTSD, and children’s grief responses.
  • Culturally sensitive, developmentally appropriate, shaped by survivors’ needs, allow children to resume familiar roles and responsibilities (such as going to school and having children engage in developmentally appropriate tasks), include parents and other caregivers, and provide economic relief for families, as well as assistance in obtaining health care.
  • Focused on encouraging children to express their feelings about the event, discussing normal reactions, and teaching problem-solving skills.
  • Inclusive of psycho-educational programs for anxiety management and coping skills, and modifying the child’s erroneous and maladaptive attributions.   (https://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/cyf/disaster.aspx)

Sounds like the work of a child life specialist, doesn’t it!

As we have focused on this field over the last several years, we have discovered that the disaster relief culture is one of heavy reliance on the organizations who have been reliable in disaster response for decades. There is a natural hesitancy or resistance to trust new organizations who may or may not be qualified or dependable in chaotic situations.

We also found that there are limited resources available for children in the aftermath of a disaster. There are only a few organizations working to meet the psychosocial needs of children in the immediate aftermath, and they each have their limitations including personnel availability and expertise.

These findings helped us answer one of our initial questions when we first began our study: “Is there a need?” We discovered that, YES! There is definitely a need for child life specialists to get more involved in the field of disaster relief. There are also gaps in services that we may be able to meet.

A CCLS providing child-centered play and processing during a large-scale tornado deployment with CDS

We also discovered that the time is right! In the last 5 years, there has been an increased awareness and interest on the federal level of the care of children during and after disasters. In 2010, a committee of experts released the National Commission on Children and Disasters; 2010 Report to the President and Congress (http://archive.ahrq.gov/prep/nccdreport/nccdreport.pdf). In this 192 page report, they detail the needs and recommendations for meeting the needs of children on various levels including:

  • Pre-identify and credential additional local and out-of-State voluntary and non-governmental organizations and networks that provide disaster assistance to children and families
  • Lead efforts to integrate mental and behavioral health for children into public health, medical, and other relevant disaster management activities.
  • Lead the development of a disaster mental and behavioral health Concept of Operations (CONOPS) to formalize disaster mental and behavioral health as a core component of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery efforts.

Based on these findings, we have been working as a team to pursue avenues for getting our child life profession involved. We have determined that the most successful way to start is to team up with organizations who are currently working with children and have trusted and established relationships within the field.

As of July 2015, we have formed a partnership with Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) for national and local deployments. They are an organization with 35+ years of experience working with the American Red Cross and FEMA to provide specialized child-centered play opportunities to children in the immediate aftermath of a natural or man-made disaster. Their philosophy lines up very nicely with ours and it is a natural fit for us to begin branching out into this new arena.

With this partnership, child life specialists will be able to participate in national deployments for larger-scale disasters.   We are also working on a Rapid Response Team model for CLS’s to respond to large and small incidents in their local areas. The CLS Rapid Responder would provide crisis interventions and also make assessments for any additional needs as part of the Children’s Disaster Services team.

What we are currently working on:

Our Child Life Disaster Relief team is continuing to develop our partnership with CDS on the local and national levels. We are also gathering information to learn about international organizational efforts, conducting research in the field of children and disasters, and creating resources specific to this field for children, providers, and families. We will continue to provide training sessions for child life specialists to become certified with Children’s Disaster Services to begin working with children affected by disasters. And we welcome any input, suggestions, or questions from any of you in the child life community as we blaze this new trail.

We currently have a growing email list of about 130 CCLS’s from around the country who have expressed interest in engaging in this initiative with us. We have 75+ CDS trained CCLS’s and over 30 certified CDS-CCLS’s.

Participants working during our recent full-day intensive at the National Child Life Conference, May 2015

How you can get involved:

Let us know if you are interested in national deployments.

Let us know if you are specifically interested in becoming a rapid responder for your local area. We are looking for CCLS’s who would like to be involved in this way. Let us know what questions you have about this specific opportunity.

Follow us on Facebook to keep up to speed with what we are doing and the training sessions available. The next session is September 18-19th in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

Email us at CLDisasterRelief@gmail.com

We welcome any questions you may have, any information, and/or any connections you would like to share with us.

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