09/06/2005

Hurricane Katrina Takes Toll on SPLC Projects

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- The Center's headquarters here escaped significant damage and inconvenience when Hurricane Katrina blew through on August 29, but several of its legal initiatives and clients were profoundly affected.

The New Orleans office of the Center-funded Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) is intact and dry, but its staff is traumatized and now scattered across the country. Several have lost their homes. And the fate of their juvenile clients, largely from poor areas that have been totally devastated, weighs heavily on them.

Some JJPL staff in Lake Charles and Houston are going shelter to shelter, trying to locate parents with whom they worked on juvenile justice issues and connect them with their families.

"We're also concerned about some of our young clients who are due to be released from juvenile facilities in Baton Rouge and now have no homes to go to," said JJPL director David Utter. JJPL staff are working to place these children with other families, he said. Otherwise, they will be forced to remain incarcerated, even though their sentence is completed.

Adjacent to New Orleans, the Jefferson Parish school system, where the Center worked to secure an important legal settlement for special education students, will not reopen until December 1, at the earliest. Special services desperately needed by the Center's clients will now be postponed.

In Mississippi, Jim Galagan, director of the Southern Disabilities Law Center — the Center's partner in its special education initiatives in both Mississippi and Louisiana — lost his home and office in Bay St. Louis.

The Center's satellite office in Jackson, which houses its Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MJP), lost power for several days but suffered no damage, and its staff is safe. Many of its clients didn't fare as well.

"Some of the kids we've been working with — more than 20 — can't locate their families," said MJP staff attorney Sheila Bedi. "The state can't do it, so our staff is trying to find them."

The Center is reaching out to its colleagues in Mississippi and Louisiana to help them re-establish their offices and continue their important work. Its staff is meeting with representatives from the Mississippi Bar Association on Thursday to identify the needs of evacuees and develop a plan to meet them. Bedi said one possibility is publication of a "Know Your Rights" handbook so that evacuated parents will have easily available information how to access vital services, such as enrolling their children in schools.

Some see the tragedy of Katrina as an opportunity to discuss race and poverty in a way to transform New Orleans. "The outrage to the slow response by the federal government to assist a mostly poor and black population is shared by many," Utter said. "We have to figure out where we go now."