BATON ROUGE, La.—It was a last-minute decision that Laila Brown now regrets.
The 34-year-old woman had planned to take her youngest daughter, 6-year-old Dion Rochelle Ridley, with her to the New Orleans Convention Center to ride out Hurricane Katrina.
But when she called the girl's nanny the night of Aug. 28, Dion was already tucked in bed asleep. Believing that the approaching storm was not really a big threat, Brown agreed to let her daughter stay one more night.
"If I would have known it would have been this bad, I wouldn't have ever left my baby," Brown said. "I know Ms. Beatrice is a good woman and that she's going to take good care of my baby, but I'm worried now because I haven't talked to them in three weeks."
She's not alone.
More than 2,000 children from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are still missing or separated from at least one parent or other caregiver, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is maintaining a database of the missing.
"Each of us who have children know what it's like to lose your child for a minute in a department store, so we can imagine what these families are feeling and what they're thinking if they've been separated from their children for the last week or so," first lady Laura Bush said during a visit to the center's Alexandria, Va., headquarters on Friday.
So far, more than 750 children from Louisiana have been reunited with their families. Fifty had been placed in foster care, but the vast majority of the separated are believed to be with relatives or family friends, scattered across the country, unable to reach parents such as Brown.
More than 13,000 calls have been fielded through the Katrina Missing Person Hotline. An additional 5,000-plus calls have been received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's call line.
Photographs of dozens of missing children are posted on the non-profit organization's Web site, www.missingkids.com.
Also pictured are children who have been found safe, largely in shelters, but who are still looking for their parents or caregivers.
Information on some children can be sparse. Some are listed by only their first names. Other photographs are simply titled "unknown female" or "unknown male."
"If you have a very young child, many may not be able to say their name or tell you who they are, and that's an obstacle," said Nancy McBride, national safety director with the center. "You've also got children who may be shy or too frightened and may not be able to talk to somebody right away."
On the second floor of the River Center in Baton Rouge, La., half a dozen retired law enforcement officers scour shelter resident lists and the approximately 20 missing person Web sites that have popped up since the hurricane, looking for separated children or their parents.
"We've found kids here in Baton Rouge, and we've found their parents as far away as Texas, Michigan and one in Georgia," said Lee Teitsworth, a retired FBI agent and member of Team Adam, a volunteer program of the national center, which normally assists in kidnapping case. "It's just not shelter to shelter. Sometimes the parents are with relatives in another state."
Some of the children became separated from their parents during rescue efforts.
"The Coast Guard helicopters took them out and maybe dropped them off in different locations," Teitsworth said. "You can't blame them, because their main mission was saving lives."
One young girl told national center workers that she was in her bedroom one minute, and the next, clinging to her mattress as it floated in rising floodwaters.
"You had absolute harrowing, dire circumstances where it's very easy for me to see how kids were separated, because they were just trying to get out," McBride said.
Other children rode out the storm and flooding with their parents, only to become separated during the evacuation.
"We've got scenarios in which parents were making actual gut-wrenching decisions to hand their child up to the front of a line of transport to get them safe," McBride said. "Parents performed heroic acts to try and keep their children safe, sometimes to the detriment of their own safety."
Most of the children didn't end up alone, but in the care of older siblings, other relatives, friends or neighbors.
Some 2,000 children who already were in foster care when the hurricane hit lived in areas affected by the storm and flooding. Three-fourths have been located.
Marketa Garner Gautreau with the Louisiana Department of Social Services expects that the majority of the 500 still unaccounted for may be in the greater Covington area, where a count has not yet taken place because staff there cannot be reached.
McBride said agencies will continue to work to find and unite all the missing children, "until we resolve every case."
Sometimes there are happy endings.
On Sunday, 22 days after James Bailey last laid eyes on his son, Alex Davis, he got the phone call he had been desperately praying for.
Alex, 8, was safe and with his mother at the Baton Rouge home of one of her relatives. The boy's maternal aunt had spotted his picture on CNN and alerted the national center that the child was fine.
Within 15 minutes of hearing the news, Bailey was talking to his son on the phone.
"His first words were `How's my games?'" said Bailey, laughing for the first time in weeks.
But others, like Brown, still wait.
A photograph of Dion—dressed in pink with her hair in braids and a toothless smile on her face—has been posted on the national center's Web site. Brown's sister has done radio interviews pleading for information about the girl. Every time the phone rings, Brown's heart leaps.
"That's my baby and I miss her, and I know she's probably looking for me too,'" Brown said.
For more information:
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Web site is at
www.missingkids.com. The Katrina Missing Persons Hotline is at (888) 544-5475.
(Boyd reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Joyce Tsai of the Star-Telegram contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA-CHILDREN
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