Resolution on The Psychological Needs of Children Exposed to Disasters

Whereas children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of disasters (abrupt, disruptive public events) through their dependence on adults for psychological and physical safety and day-to-day care and their widely varying stages of development;

Whereas disasters, both natural and human-made, often lead to devastating psychological effects on the populations impacted;

Whereas disasters are increasing sources of human dysfunction (Hurricane Andrew, Midwest floods), as urban areas grow in population and geographic area/spread, as rural areas fall further behind in access to resources, as technology expands the potential for accidents and negative side effects (Three-Mile Island), and as the rise in international terrorism increases the probability that U.S. sites will be targeted (1992 New York's World Trade Center);

Whereas formal policies and procedures directed to preventing and treating psychological dysfunction resulting from the impact of disasters on children are absent or minimal in the public and private organizations established to provide relief;

Whereas the APA currently has in place collaborative disaster training and intervention activities with some relief organizations (e.g., the Red Cross), and whereas these activities should specifically address children's psychological needs;

Whereas the federal government generally has been slow to provide adequate leadership in the development and application of knowledge about child victims of disaster;

Whereas disaster relief efforts have sometimes failed to ensure the physical and psychological safety of child disaster victims;

Whereas research on the prevention of negative psychological effects and on the treatment of disaster victims has been limited and of varying degrees of methodological soundness--e.g., lacking in control groups, standard instruments, before and after measures--and research on children's needs and responses in disasters is particularly scant;

Whereas emerging research establishes the acute short-term and serious long-term negative effects of disasters on children's behavior and mental health as well as on that of their families;

Whereas the positive impact of selected interventions with children and their families exposed to disasters is beginning to emerge through research;

Whereas available research suggests differences related to gender, disability, and family status in children's vulnerability and responses to disasters and many children find ways to cope successfully with a variety of negative situations;

Whereas the significance of race and ethnicity in the prevention and treatment of psychological dysfunction in child disaster victims has not been systematically studied;

Whereas emerging research suggests that children disadvantaged by known risk factors such as poverty, disability, and abuse may be at higher risk for dysfunctional outcomes as a result of exposure to disaster and may also be disproportionately represented among disaster victims;

Whereas the unique features that typify the effects of disasters on children and their families, and on the public institutions that deal with them, create needs for special training of psychologists and other professionals in assessing damage and initiating and evaluating prevention and treatment programs;

Whereas the development and application of knowledge about the impact of disasters on children and their families have been impeded by critical shortages of qualified researchers and mental health practitioners specializing in work on the topic;

Whereas Section I of APA's Division 12 has published an extensive review of the literature, in which they have (a) reviewed the scientific knowledge about (i) the prevention of negative psychological effects of disaster on children, (ii) treatment of disaster-exposed children, (iii) effects of interventions on disaster-exposed children and their families, (b) identified critical gaps in knowledge about the effects of disasters on children and their families, and (c) suggested initiatives to enhance the state of knowledge in this area;

Whereas psychologists have ethical duties to promote human dignity and welfare;

Resolved, that the Council of Representatives of the APA finds and declares that the development and implementation of a national strategy to prevent and treat the psychological dysfunction resulting from exposure of children and their families to disasters is a matter of the highest priority, and supports the establishment of policies to maintain their psychological well-being;

Therefore, be it resolved that the American Psychological Association:

1) authorizes the Association's Committee on Children, Youth, and Families to pursue collaborative efforts with Section I of Division 12, Division 16, the Psychology in the Schools Program in the Practice Directorate, and the Association's Disaster Response Network, in view of these groups' expertise and recent work in this area, and other interested, involved entities within the Association to:

  • consider development of guidelines to (a) identify the needs of children and families exposed to disasters, (b) prevent and treat the negative psychological sequelae in children and their families exposed to disasters through interventions shown to be effective through research and clinical knowledge, (c) utilize other psychological experts, committees, divisions, and previously established APA guidelines (e.g., Guidelines for Providers of Psychological Services to Ethnic, Linguistic, and Culturally Diverse Populations (APA, 1990)) as references and resources, in the formulation of guidelines;

  • explore proposals for other dissemination of psychological knowledge about child disaster victims' needs, as well as possible guidelines, to the organization's state associations, divisions, the membership at large, and national relief organizations (e.g., Red Cross, Salvation Army, FEMA); and to explore proposals for developing public relations campaigns, developed in collaboration with health and relief organizations, summarizing current research and clinical knowledge about the needs of children and families in disaster situations; such campaigns to be adaptable to specific disasters as they occur within local communities;

  • encourage the development of research protocols for implementing empirical investigations of the impact of disasters on children and their families to understand successful coping mechanisms and individual characteristics which lead to excellent long term functioning and to encourage the evaluation of mental health intervention following disasters;

  • explore possible sources for research funding to support such empirical investigations; and

  • select current, quality psychological research and clinical knowledge to be used to explore proposals for a possible national public relations campaign as described herein.

2) Recognizing the interest in the Practice Directorate's Disaster Response Network shown by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration--the federal agency that works with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to ensure that disaster mental health needs are met--will advocate, in consultation with the Practice Directorate, for FEMA or other federal agencies to support the continuing efforts of the federal agencies to maintain their existing information data bank on disasters and encourages expansion to include available resources.

3) In all activities conducted pursuant to this act, due consideration shall be given to the need for cultural competence and appropriate psychological service delivery and research protocols to serve ethnic minority children and their families.

4) In all activities conducted pursuant to this act, due consideration shall be given to the relation of the needs of children exposed to disasters to other social issues, including the status of children, the status of women, the status of ethnic minorities, the status of lesbian and gay families, the status of refugee and immigrant families, the needs of children with disabilities and or experiencing handicapping conditions, the needs of children suffering from abuse and neglect, the effects of poverty, problems of substance abuse, the welfare of families, and cultural beliefs about violence (DeLeon, in press).

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August 2009: Revised by CR to insert 1992 in line 12