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Actresses Meet with Young Katrina Victims

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Many adults who survived Katrina are continuing to try and put their lives together. Just imagine how children must feel. New health studies show that kids are still coping with trauma from Katrina. And new efforts by the Children's Defense Fund are bringing attention and resources to the crisis. On Monday, actresses Cicely Tyson, Regina King, Reese Witherspoon and CCH Pounder joined a delegation in New Orleans.

Marian Wright Edelman is the President and founder of the Children's Defense Fund, which sponsored the trip. She told NPR's Farai Chideya what she hoped to accomplish with this high profile visit.

Ms. MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN (President and Founder, Children's Defense Fund): We brought them there to let them see and experience, firsthand, the storm that is still raging in the children and in the families that where affected by Katrina over eight months ago - who still do not have mental health and health coverage. There are thousands of children walking Louisiana's streets without a public school to go to.

And so that they shared in opening up our first of 13 planned Freedom Schools; summer literacy programs to help them have an alternative to the street; to have roll models with black college students; to have reading enriched curriculum; and give them so backup for all the time they have missed from schools. And so it was a very intensive tour day. We met with women of the storm, and women from Gulf Coast states, from Texas and Mississippi and Louisiana and heard what they're continuing problems were in trying to keep their families together, find housing, find jobs, find childcare, get healthcare, get mental healthcare.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Well, that's clearly a tremendous amount that you packed into one trip. So let's break it down a little bit. The Freedom Schools that you're talking about are modeled on the civil rights era of Freedom Schools, is that correct?

Ms. EDELMAN: That is right, from the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. But what is different is that we've put a very well-conceived and well-tested integrated reading curriculum into them. College students work and deliver this curriculum; they are trained for 10 days at the former Alex Haley farm.

About 850 will be trained June first to tenth to run about 95 Freedom Schools for 7,000 people. But in addition, we've got nine emergency Freedom Schools in Mississippi, where we trained Louisiana evacuees in Mississippi who have been running them for the last 24 weeks. And we are now opening up these in Louisiana with college age students. And we're adding a special mental health and health component that will allow them to cope with their continuing unresolved issues from Katrina.

CHIDEYA: Let's get into that more deeply. It's estimated that a hundred thousand children could be affected by posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of Katrina. How do the children there seem to you? Do they seem to be in jeopardy? And what can an organization like yours do to try to ameliorate some of these issues?

Ms. EDELMAN: Well, the parents and the children whom we have been interviewing over the last month really attest to the fact that there is a mental health crisis. And many children are depressed, and they are having nightmares. Babies who don't want to take baths because they were terrified by the water; children who were in the Superdome who saw or heard gunshots, or saw people trying to molest, or saw terrible things. But the fact is, that we have not, for hundreds of thousands of Katrina parents and children, provided the kind of disaster relief, Medicaid, mental and health services, that they need.

And so we're calling for one: an emergency mental corp. We had a mobile van. And We're trying to find child specialists. We're trying to get Katrina families to come over to our Alex Haley farm to get some spiritual renewal and respite from what is a continuing instability about their future. Thirdly: we're calling and are working very hard to get these freedom schools up quickly with mental health counseling, and I hope we will reach thousands of children. But here in Washington, we're trying to build a voice for emergency disaster Medicaid that would be 24 months that would cover Katrina's children, but all of us who may be affected by future disasters who are trying to navigate 50 state bureaucracies.

So we ought to have a national policy that when a national disaster is declared, that we will automatically get health and mental health coverage to people like we did in 9/11. Katrina's people need the same.

CHIDEYA: Outline for us what the stakes are in mental health if children struck by Katrina don't get help. What are the stakes if other children don't get help?

Ms. EDELMAN: The mental health system - and mental health is crucial. We quote the trauma specialists from Houston, who said that the real storm and the real cost of Katrina will be in the unmet mental health needs of children. Who, if they're not met, are going to result in substance abuse, and violence, and more incarceration. We are about to issue a report on the cradle to prison pipeline. Talking about the growing criminalization; and children who are in juvenile detention; and our adult mental health jail systems, because they did not get their mental health needs attended to in an early fashion, and their parents didn't.

So we're talking about a ticking time bomb that will cost our nation billions of dollars in dependency and incarceration costs. And children who drop out of school, and who will get into the juvenile justice and the criminal justice system. So we've got to deal with our children. And there are hundreds of thousands of them and their families that have unmet needs. Which is why we're going to be introducing and calling for a comprehensive health coverage bill. We are a rich nation. We are the leader in the world in health technology, and yet we will not take care of our children. That is a moral scandal. But it is also a practical disaster.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you, what did you see during this trip? I'm sure you've been to Louisiana many times. What did you see during this trip that may have given you a ray of hope?

Ms. EDELMAN: Let me say that the resilience of the parents and the children whose suffering is preventable and unnecessary just was deeply moving to all of us. We went into the St. Rock trailer camp and we looked in these tiny little trailers where five, six, seven, eight, nine people are trying to live. But they were just grateful to have it, and they were keeping going, even though there's no recreation in that park, no school, no after schools. The doctors who were on our busses and who were dealing with the emergency problems in the Superdome spoke to us and they described their challenges. But boy are they talking about how they provide quality care and how they're going to keep going. But how people need to hear.

CHIDEYA: Even before Katrina, however, the children of New Orleans and children throughout Louisiana and the Gulf Region, have not always been in a position to get what they need. How do you unearth what Katrina did and get down to those other fundamental issues of health and education?

Ms. EDELMAN: Well, you raise a very important issue. Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. Louisiana is the second. Alabama, Texas, health insurance and health coverage and mental health coverage was in emergency beforehand. Only a three to four percent of Louisiana's children - and most seriously ill -were getting mental health services. They have been suffering from failing schools. Over 80 percent of the children in those schools are not reading at grade level in fourth grade. 37 percent of New Orleans children were poor.

So these children have been living under conditions, and with failing schools, with a failing healthcare system, and a non-existent mental health system before Katrina. Katrina made it worse because it destroyed an already inadequate and mental health infrastructure. It destroyed already failing schools. What we've got now is an acute emergency. But with it being very clear, the pre-failures and the continuing failures, that we must respond. And we must turn this into an opportunity to give these children a better life after Katrina, than they had before.

CHIDEYA: Marion Wright-Edelman, thank you for joining us.

MS. EDELMAN: Thank you for having me.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with Marian Wright-Edelman, president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.