The Fletcher Family (L to R Joshua, Madison, Veronica and Zachary) lost father and husband Joseph to COVID-19. Credit: Terrence C. Jennings photo

As terrifying and heartbreaking as the COVID-19 pandemic was for adults, for some children the past two years have been even more challenging. Reports show over one million persons in the U.S. died from the virus, but there is a subset of persons who continue to be affected by those deaths. These are the children who lost a parent or direct caregiver to COVID-19. According to data tabulated by COVID Collaborative, 217,364 children nationally have lost a caregiver to COVID-19, nearly 300 per 100,000 Americans. The data show that 108,738 children lost a primary caregiver, with 17,102 of them losing their sole caregiver. 

Even more disheartening is that 153,148 of these bereaved children are between ages 0-13 years and 40,584 of them are Black and 78,400 are Hispanic. 

Dan Treglia, an expert contributor to COVID Collaborative, told the AmNews that CDC data released in May showed that “8,730 children in New York City have lost a parent or another co-residing caregiver to COVID-19. This is a rate of 511 per 100,000 people. In other words, one of every 196 children has lost a co-residing caregiver to COVID-19. This is a significantly higher rate than we’ve seen for the United States overall, with wider disparities between Black and Hispanic children and white children than we see in the country as a whole.”

The number of affected children in New York City is staggering, and is even more impactful when a face is put to each number. Joshua, Zachary, and Madison are the children left behind after their father Trevor Fletcher, an MTA worker, died on April 11, 2020 from COVID-19. “I knew it was a possibility that he might never come back from the hospital,” said 16-year-old Joshua Fletcher in an interview with the AmNews at his home. 

His younger brother Zachary, 13, shared that, “We became more sensitive. And, like, we felt lonely in the house too, like our family would never be, like, fine again.” The Fletcher children spoke about family vacations being different and missing simple things like the hot dogs their father used to make. Their mother, Veronica Fletcher, recalled that “shortly after I told them that their Papa had passed, they immediately went into more desperate mode about the things that they knew their father did. So Ziggy [Zachary] said, how are we going to pay the bills? What’s going to happen? How are we going to live? Because they know that their father was the only one who went to work. They knew that we had one income.”

Sisters Yasmin, 10, and Aslin, 15, lost their father, Warren Bates, to COVID-19 on March 22, 2020––a mere eight days after he was admitted to the hospital. Aslin says, “It was rough. I couldn’t, like, focus as much at school.” Their mother, Ingrid Cardona, shared that: “It started affecting her academically. She was an honor student at that time. Honor Society, assistant principal’s award, and her academics declined, like really bad, to the point where she was actually struggling, and almost did not pass middle school.” 

Low student engagement directly impacts academic performance and compounds the struggles of kids who lost a caregiver to COVID-19. Issues like grief, survivor’s guilt and possibly caring for other siblings after losing a parent negatively impact academic progress.

Some families took issue with the preparations made for public school reopening in Fall of 2021. Public school counselor and certified grief counselor, Diane Nathaniel, told the AmNews, “They said they were going to fund all this money for social emotional learning and mental health. But that did not happen. And it didn’t happen, because I guess it’s two-fold. You didn’t have enough therapists to do it.” 

Nathaniel went on to add that “when kids returned, it was almost like, well, let’s just pick up where we left off. So we see the delay of social emotional skills, executive functioning skills are totally two years behind, as far as socializing.”

Grief-induced anxiety is another residual effect that bereaved children of COVID-19 children in New York City are battling with. Both Madison and Yasmin, the youngest children of two affected families, are dealing with anxiety. Madison’s mother, Veronica Fletcher, shared that Madison has broken into hysterics when she leaves the house for simple grocery shopping. The fear of losing her mother is real. Veronica makes an effort to spend individual time with Madison, and also encourages journaling and supports her using her art as a form of therapy. 

Ingrid Cardona, mother to 10-year-old Yasmin, shared that: “If any little thing like a cough, or I would come home from work and say I’m not feeling well, I can automatically see her demeanor change. You can see the face of fear and I’m like, everything is alright. And then she would cry and say: ‘I don’t want you to die Mommy. I don’t want you to die next, Mommy.’” 

The Fletcher and Bates children have received therapy but not through city services. The Fletcher children get support from Diane Nathaniel, a certified grief counselor who is their church sister, and the Bates access private therapy sessions through Life Works, which Ingrid’s employment-based health insurance covers along with a copay.

Both families admit to needing help and support but would prefer if there was a framework in place for the help to find them. Veronica Fletcher remarked that school officials would say “let us know what we can do,” but reaching out for help is just another task on the list of things to do. Catherine Jaynes PhD, senior director of external affairs at COVID Collaborative agreed saying, “I think we learned lessons from 9/11, where every time a parent had to do outreach to get a service, they had to retell their story and re-traumatize themselves with their story.”

Suzan Sumer, associate press secretary for New York City Department Of Education, said in a statement to the AmNews that “every one of our schools is a caring, supportive environment where our students can connect with one another, communicate with a caring adult, and access the resources they need to heal. It’s our priority to provide our schools with the resources needed, such as School Crisis Teams, ensuring that every school has access to a mental health professional, such as a school social worker, to meet students where they are, centering their well-being through difficult times and beyond.”  

Sumer went on to say that in-School Crisis Teams trained by Dr. David Schonfeld of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement are available to facilitate guided conversations with students experiencing grief.

New York politicians have taken note of the gaps in the system as well.

“Since the start of the pandemic, our city has lost more than 40,500 New Yorkers to COVID-19. Each death represents a significant loss to our families, communities, and our city. In particular, children who have lost loved ones to the virus need our support. The Council will review the COVID Collaborative’s report and recommendations, in addition to existing bills already in the pipeline like Intro. 139, Council Member Shaun Abreu’s legislation to require the Administration for Children’s Services to report on the impact of the deaths of parents and guardians from COVID-19 on children,” said Speaker Adrienne Adams in a statement provided to the Amsterdam News.

In a statement Congressman Jamaal Bowman told the AmNews: “When it comes to COVID-19, Black and Hispanic students have experienced twice the amount of loss of parents and caregivers from COVID than white students. We know that when children experience trauma, their brains and bodies are changed and that this can be linked to poor health and learning later in life as a result of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), especially when there is no intervention to support children and buffer them from the harshest impacts of chronic, significant stress.”

Community based organizations have received external funding to create programs specifically to support bereaved families. Montefiore Medical Center created the COVID-19 Family Resilience Program which provides personalized assessments, referrals to resources, and financial support to New York City and lower Hudson Valley families who have lost a loved one to COVID-19. To be eligible for the program, families need to have dependent children under the age of 26 and face financial challenges.

Lauren Pilkington, manager of media and public relations at Montefiore Health System told the AmNews that “reaching the families could be difficult at times, as some families moved or were hard to contact. We received a total of 887 referrals and were able to contact and assess 861 families (97% of referred cases), a testament to the dedication of our staff to reach these families at such a challenging time.” They created a portal that allowed MDs, RNs and social workers to make referrals and the team combed through records at Montefiore and did chart reviews to determine if deceased patients had children. Then the social work team reached out to the families to assess, which was a time consuming and labor-intensive process as it wasn’t done with automation. 

Last year, to support the needs and address the magnitude of this crisis for Black and brown young people, New York Life Foundation partnered with Judi’s House to develop a special childhood bereavement estimation model report on race and ethnicity which confirmed and illuminated the need for more bereavement support for young people of color. 

New York Life has also launched the Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative which aims to better equip educators and other school personnel to support grieving students, and supports Tuesday’s Children which builds the capacity of youth-serving community providers to support children in the U.S. who have lost a parent or primary caregiver in the pandemic.

The plans of COVID Collaborative and their partners will not immediately solve all the problems for these bereaved children. Dr. Jaynes openly admits that, “We’re using COVID as a wedge issue, to get in to get better resources to schools, mental health, broadly for bereavement more specifically, and then COVID. We know that COVID is going to come and go but what isn’t going to come and go is the impact of the death of a parent.” 

For more information about COVID related resources in NYC including mental health and housing assistance visit: www1.nyc.gov/site/acs/about/covidhelp.page

You can also access resources on the AmNews COVID-19 page: amsterdamnews.com/covid/

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