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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia Researcher Leads Study on At-risk Children Separated from their Primary Caregivers in Emergency Situations

Addressing the needs of separated children is a cornerstone of child protection in emergency response. While there are minimum standards to help organizations establish family tracing, reunification and alternative care programming, no guidelines currently exist for quantifying the overall magnitude of such separations in an emergency. A study led by Mailman School of Public Health’s Dr. Lindsay Stark, associate professor of population and family health and director of the CPC Learning Network, reported on the use of the ‘neighborhood method’ to measure the basic characteristics of children who became separated from their parents or caregivers subsequent to an attack by a militia group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an area affected by armed conflict for more than two decades.

[Photo: Dr. Lindsay Stark]

The research from the Measuring Separation in Emergencies (MSiE) project an initiative where humanitarian actors come together to test and operationalize new methods, is published here. Funded by the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and implemented by Save the Children, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and several other partners, MSiE was designed to better identify and survey unaccompanied and separated children in emergency settings.

Children in the region are regularly separated from their families due to violence, displacement, poverty and recruitment to armed forces. “The neighborhood method has proven useful for measuring sensitive events such as sexual violence in situations where security, logistical, and financial limitations make large samples difficult to attain,” said Dr. Stark. “For too long, data collection on displaced peoples has been lopsided and fragmented. MSiE’s collaborative approach reflects a growing commitment to overcome these traditional barriers to accurate counting.”

It is well documented that children who are separated from their parents or usual caregivers face a multitude of risks. Compared to children who are not separated, these children have an increased likelihood of recruitment and abduction into armed forces and groups. They suffer from higher levels of food insecurity, and are more likely to be exploited for labor and sex than their unseparated peers. In addition, separation can have long-term social and psychological impacts, including chronic stress and anxiety.

Dr. Stark and colleagues tracked separation for children who arrived into the households after the attacks and children who left the households without their parent(s) or usual caregiver. Respondents in 522 households in July and August 2014 were asked to provide information about separated children from their own household, as well as separated children from the households of their two closest neighbors. This resulted in a total sample size of 1533 households. The prevalence of separated children who arrived in the households was 9 percent in primary households and 4.5 percent in neighbors’ households.

“There is a pressing need for reliable, valid and feasible population-based methods to estimate the prevalence of separated children in emergencies,” noted Dr. Stark. “Our project found mixed reliability for the method and calls for further refinement and evaluation of its validity and reliability in settings with shorter recall periods.”