By Cicely Tyson and Marian Wright Edelman
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund. Cicely Tyson is an award-winning actress and co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
(CNN) -- On May 8, we went with two dozen prominent Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., women to New Orleans on a Katrina Child Watch visit. We wanted to experience New Orleans first hand, encourage survivors, and shine a light on the continuing and acute health, mental health, and education crises of children traumatized by last year's storm.
We met displaced families and saw the children's dirt play space and crowded living arrangements at St. Roch Trailer Village; experienced the "M.A.S.H.-like" health center on the first floor of a former Lord and Taylor's store, where the valiant Charity Hospital doctors were still providing care in unbelievably cramped quarters months after their huge and historic facility closed. And we toured the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, which still could rival some war zones in Iraq. What we saw and the stories we heard broke our hearts.
It is morally intolerable that a year after Hurricane Katrina, many thousands of children and families are still suffering and going without critical supports like health care, mental health care and housing and schooling in the richest nation on earth.
Experts testified at a July congressional hearing in New Orleans that mental health needs are a critical concern for survivors. There are only 10 mental health pediatric and youth beds available in New Orleans, although the number of children with unresolved mental health problems has increased. There were 3200 physicians in Orleans and surrounding parishes before the storm; only 1400 are practicing now -- requiring many families to see unfamiliar doctors and to drive many miles for health care. Homelessness is on the rise, and thousands of people continue to live in shelters, trailer parks, and with relatives and strangers with no relief in sight -- just "stuck on stuck," as a homeless state employee said.
Only 22 of New Orleans's 125 public schools reopened during the 2005-2006 school year and countless children lost much school time in that city and other cities. They hope to increase that number to 56 this year but are still struggling to find enough teachers to fill the 400 empty slots. Children are returning without schools or child care spaces or after-school programs, roaming the streets or remaining idle in barren trailer camps. More and more teenagers are returning to New Orleans without a parent or a permanent place to live. Juvenile crime is increasing. Concerns about youth violence and crime reached a peak when five teenagers were killed on a single night in June.
The Children's Defense Fund is doing everything it can to help through 15 CDF Freedom Schools programs, which provide positive summer and after-school opportunities for children, six of which were enabled by the Katrina Child Watch women, along with a new Mobile Health Van which is about to become operational. Their quick action and that from other organizations and the faith community have been bright spots in the city's recovery struggle.
But these are tiny fingers in the dikes of need that cry out for effective government and private sector system response. The federal government needs to provide Emergency Disaster Relief Medicaid to ensure health and mental health care and emergency services to Katrina survivors. Children need more and better quality schools and after school programs and safe havens from New Orleans streets. And all Gulf Coast children need, as one young boy said, "hope."
We need to make sure our nation -- their nation -- doesn't forget Katrina's children, ignore them, neglect them, and continue to leave them behind, invisible and uncared for, like the debris still littering the Ninth Ward and other devastated communities across the Gulf Coast. We need a forward-looking national disaster policy and health care and mental health care for every child now. The storm is still raging for many of Katrina's children a year later. And that is un-American.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer. This article is part of a series of occasional opinion pieces on CNN.com that offer a broad range of perspectives that express a variety of thoughts and points of view.
CNN.com asked readers for their thoughts on this commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling.
The parents of these children need to be held accountable. Here in Florida, we have had many hurricanes and lots of people have been devastated. But one year later, we don't "commemorate" the storm. You see, we've picked ourselves up, moved on, and gotten our lives back to normal. How can these people sit around and wait for the government to "save" them after one year? Personal responsibility and accountability -- you don't see much of that coming out of New Orleans.
Charity begins at home. President Bush ought to stop pumping all of our time and money into Iraq and worry about what's going on in his own backyard. Not one person in this country should ever go to bed hungry.
I would be thrilled if the citizens of this country would pay less attention to a drunk Mel Gibson and more attention to the suffering of its own people. It's disgraceful, just disgraceful. Shame on the public and shame on the media for abandoning its people and lacking the courage to stand up and tell the government we will not stand for this kind of treatment. And please don't forget the Mississippi Gulf Coast. People there are still living in tents because they haven't even received their trailers. And many don't even have access to 'mash-like' medical care.
I respect the two commentators, but their commentary seems to endorse the perpetual victimhood in which the citizens of New Orleans have been wrapping themselves since the storm. Bad things happen in life and it is the job of parents to show their children that challenges are best met by constructive action, not by passively becoming symbols of what can happen when people respond to challenges by playing the race card or "the government needs to take better care of me" card.
I really don't understand why I do not see more black congressmen and more black political leaders and even black pastors coming together to fight this problem. I know 9/11 was a terrible stain on us as Americans, but everyone became unified by that disaster. Well, this is a natural disaster, no one asked for this, not even the poorest of people. When are we going to realize that the same things and leadership we had with 911, we should have been receiving for Katrina?
How can I forget them? Every day, it is the same thing, gimme, gimme. Then, pull out the race card. Works every time. Have we not paid enough? STOP!
As much as they may protest to the contrary, politicians would love to sweep all these things under the carpet. There may be some of them that try to accomplish goals to help Katrina victims, but I feel the majority think of it as America's "dirty little secret." I can't imagine not making sure that at least the children don't have to carry these wounds throughout their lives. Children should be allowed to be children and not suffer from "the sins of the fathers." In this case, meaning the supposed fathers of their country.
I did not see anything in the article that discussed individual responsibility. Bad things happen to people everyday. Although many of these events are uncontrollable, we can control our individual responses to those unforeseen events. Each one of us is responsible for how we react, and what we do, in such circumstances. I would have at least liked to see some acknowledgement of this fact by the authors.
I don't understand why our government is doing so little. In other countries, even third world countries, relief comes faster. There was a focus on rebuilding schools in Bande Aceh one week after the tsunami. I'd gladly pay more taxes if I thought they would go for something worthwhile.
I feel so sorry for those people who are having such a bad time in New Orleans. I did donate money for the relief plan, but it seems someone stole a lot of money that they were supposed to get. I don't trust anyone enough to send any more. I'm sorry.
Marian Wright Edelman and Cicely Tyson argue that it's "morally intolerable" so many children are still suffering from Katrina.