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Shantell Antoine was so weak after a hospital stay for kidney failure that she agreed, reluctantly, to let her 3-year-old son, David, spend a weekend in church-organized child care.
It was the wrong weekend.
When Katrina hit New Orleans, she couldn't contact his caregiver, who left without calling. She was evacuated to the Superdome, but because she needed dialysis, she was sent on to Baton Rouge.
"It was like a nightmare," says Antoine, 30, a lifelong New Orleans resident. She had trouble sleeping and ended up in an emergency room because of the stress. She was reunited Thursday with her only child in Lafayette, La., where she now lives.
Like David, at least 883 lost Katrina children have found their parents in the largest effort ever in the USA to reunify families. Child advocates and volunteers have worked around the clock, helped by TV networks that have broadcast pictures of lost children.
"We're making these matches so incredibly fast," says Marketa Garner Gautreau, assistant secretary for the Office of Community Services in Louisiana's Department of Social Services.
Yet three weeks after Katrina, the agonizing search for missing children continues. Despite the joyful reunions, 2,393 kids are still reported as missing or looking for their parents in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
"Not only are we recovering more kids, but we're hearing from more parents," says Ernie Allen, the center's president and CEO. The center is checking each case, but its database might not be definitive. Some of the missing might not have registered with the center (www.missingkids.org) or the Red Cross. Some might be staying with extended family members. Others might have found their parents but not updated their registry.
Allen expects that most families will eventually be reunited. He says the media's vast coverage has helped. He credits CNN's 64 consecutive hours of posting photos of lost kids with resolving at least 15 cases and prompting many parents to call the center's hotline (1-888-544-5475).
He says he is heartened that most cases are "innocent" stories: parents who simply got separated in the frenzy of evacuation.
"The helicopters were taking kids first," Gautreau says. Some didn't return for the parents or took them elsewhere.
Gautreau says Louisiana and Texas have fewer than a dozen children unaccompanied by a relative in shelters. The two states have taken into the foster care system another 50 children whose parents are unlikely to be found.
Despite the media coverage, reuniting families could become more difficult. Many evacuees have moved from shelters to temporary homes, sometimes switching cities or even states.
Some of the children are too young to give information about themselves. David Antoine, 3, didn't know his name or address. "He wasn't able to tell us anything," says Gwen Carter, spokeswoman for Texas' Department of Family and Child Protective Services.
Some of the parents don't have pictures of their missing children because they fled their homes so quickly.
Also a problem are possible con artists and pedophiles. When USA TODAY tried to track down one man who said his deaf triplet babies and their deaf mother were missing in New Orleans, a reporter found that the man had been arrested before for filing a false report. The reporter also found no record of the man's family or his student status. The center quickly removed his posting.
For parents who are still looking for their children, the wait is excruciating.
"It's hard coping with this," says Greg Newman, 34, who is searching for his 7-year-old son, Demontre Smith, a second-grader in New Orleans who likes go-karts and Spider-Man. The boy was with his mom, Lanell, when Katrina hit.
"I get little sleep," says Newman, a father of five who was evacuated to the Astrodome but is working this week on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. "I have faith they'll be found."
Scott Moreland, a psychiatrist at the Baylor College of Medicine who counseled evacuees at the Astrodome, says the kids without parents were quiet and clingy. "Some of the younger kids kept asking: 'Where's Mom? Where's Dad?'" He says it could be even more difficult for the older ones, who might blame themselves.
He remembers a 7-year-old girl from New Orleans who drew a picture of little brown balls floating in the water. "That's my family," she said matter-of-factly.
"Parents are truly serving as role models right now," says Robin Gurwich, a psychologist in Oklahoma City. "If the parent cries at the drop of a hat, the child will become more anxious."
Antoine says she's relieved that her toddler is back, but she's going to be "real, real cautious" about ever letting him stay with anyone else. "I'd be frightened, scared. This will be with me for a long time."
Contributing: Mark Memmott
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