Utility of child physical characteristics and verbal descriptors to aid in family reunification during disasters





disaster, reunification, pediatrics, surge capacity, emergency management


Objective: To identify physical and verbal descriptors that have the highest concordance between parents/guardians and a research team member to improve reunification during a disaster when a child arrives at the emergency department separated from their family.

Methods: Parent and child pairs were recruited between February 2020 and March 2020. Each parent and research team member simultaneously recorded the child’s physical characteristics and clothing items. Verbal children were asked personally identifying questions. An inter-rater reliability Cohen’s κ determined percent agreement between each researcher and parent/child pair.

Results: In total, 98 parent/child pairs participated. Child’s gender, eye color measured as brown versus not brown eyes, and race had the highest concordance (κ = 0.92, 0.85, and 0.84, respectively; p < .001 for all). Skin color and all hair descriptors had low concordance. All or almost all verbal children correctly identified that they have a pet and a favorite stuffed animal or blanket (100 and 98.6 percent, respectively).

Discussion: Only apparent age, gender, race, and general eye color (brown versus nonbrown) had strong concordance between each researcher and parent/child pair. Other descriptors such as hair color, texture, length, and detailed eye color were discordant. Additionally, several pieces of personal information, such as a pet, could expedite reunification of verbal children.

Conclusion: Not all physical characteristics are likely to be useful in accurately identifying a child, and some personal information may aid in reunification. Using the most concordant information should allow for more accurate and rapid reunification of children and their caregivers during disasters.

Author Biographies

Terri Rebmann, PhD, RN, CIC, FAPIC

Special Assistant to the President, Director, Institute for Biosecurity, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri; Professor, Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics, College for Public Health and Social Justice, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri

Rachel L. Charney, MD

College for Public Health and Social Justice, Division of Pediatrics, School of Medicine, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri

Rachel L. Mazzara, MPH

College for Public Health and Social Justice, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri


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How to Cite

Rebmann, PhD, RN, CIC, FAPIC, T., R. L. Charney, MD, and R. L. Mazzara, MPH. “Utility of Child Physical Characteristics and Verbal Descriptors to Aid in Family Reunification During Disasters”. American Journal of Disaster Medicine, vol. 17, no. 1, Mar. 2022, pp. 5-12, doi:10.5055/ajdm.2022.0415.




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