As many as 5,000 New Jersey children were orphaned by COVID-19 during the first 14 months of the pandemic, new statistical modeling shows, and the vast majority were from Black and Hispanic families. Only nine states — including California, Florida and New York — had higher deaths among parents, grandparents or other child caregivers.

Nationwide, more than 140,000 minors are estimated to have lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID-19 between April 2020 and June 2021, according to findings from researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Boston Children’s Hospital and multiple universities in England and South Africa. Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of these youngsters are from families that are an ethnic or racial minority, researchers found, making them as much as 4.5 times more likely to lose a parent than white kids.

‘Children losing caregivers to COVID-19 need care and safe, stable, and nurturing families with economic support, quality childcare and evidence-based parenting support programs.’

“We found substantial disparities in distributions of COVID-19-associated death of parents and caregivers across racial and ethnic groups. Children losing caregivers to COVID-19 need care and safe, stable, and nurturing families with economic support, quality childcare and evidence-based parenting support programs. There is an urgent need to mount an evidence-based comprehensive response focused on those children at greatest risk, in the states most affected,” the researchers conclude in a paper published last week in the medical journal Pediatrics. Their assessments are based on statistical modeling that used data on childbirths and fatalities resulting from COVID-19 and unknown causes.

While clinical research and policy decisions have centered largely on adult needs during the pandemic, child health advocates and others are increasingly concerned about the impact it has had on children, given the fear, isolation and loss that many have experienced. Experts note many of these qualify as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, factors that have profound, lasting negative impacts on young people’s health and welfare.

More than 40% of New Jersey children have experienced at least one adverse experience as a child, according to research that predates the pandemic, which some consider an adverse experience itself. While these traumas impact all races and economic groups, research suggests Black and brown children are more likely to experience multiple traumas during childhood.

Racial disparities have also been evident in the pandemic itself, as Black and Hispanic New Jerseyans are significantly more likely to be infected, hospitalized and die than white residents. In 2020, COVID-19 was the state’s No. 1 killer of Black, Hispanic and Asian residents, NJ Spotlight News found. Several of these minority groups have also faced greater risk of pandemic fallout related to income, housing and food security.

“COVID-19 was traumatic for all of us, but even more so for kids in under-resourced communities and those who are racial and ethnic minorities. And significantly more for those who lost a parent or caregiver,” said Dr. Arturo Brito, a pediatrician and former deputy health commissioner in New Jersey who is now president and CEO of the Children’s Health Fund, a national advocacy organization for children in under-served communities.

Loss of a parent is associated with mental health problems, lack of self-esteem, quitting school early and risk of suicide, violence and sexual abuse in children, according to the Pediatrics study. The death of any caregiver can lead to financial instability, housing changes, family separations and a lack of nurturing support, it says. Nationwide, more than one in five children lived in a single-parent home before the pandemic, and one in 10 had a grandparent as a primary caregiver, the researchers note.

Child trauma from a parent’s death

Brito, who previously led The Nicholson Foundation, which has focused significant resources on childhood traumas, said families need support and resources — financial and otherwise — to provide a healthy environment for a child traumatized by death. The work will fall to government agencies, nonprofits and community-based organizations, he noted. “We must ensure they have the care and resources they need,” he said.

In New Jersey, state officials don’t specifically track COVID-19 caregiver deaths or the number of orphans that result from those deaths. But data from the Department of Children and Families shows that the number of kids in state care — for reasons that could include being orphaned — has declined dramatically over the years, even during COVID-19. Fewer than 3,600 kids are now placed outside their families, down from nearly 5,000 in 2019 and some 10,500 in 2006.

“The number of youth in care has declined exponentially, even during the pandemic, as a result of our work to empower and strengthen families to raise their children safely,” said Nicole Brossoie, a spokesperson for DCF.

One goal is to identify extended family or “fictive kin” — those who are unrelated, but close, to the child who lost the parent, and work with them to provide long-term care, Brossoie said. These families are given the same training and home visits as foster parents, she noted. DCF offers a Kinship Navigator program that provides links to a host of services, from caregiver support groups to housing assistance to tutoring services and funding for expenses like legal costs, clothing and furniture, or summer camp.

‘These families identify people they know will care for their child, or children, in their absence.’

Brossoie said DCF also urges families who may be anticipating the death of a caregiver to plan for the child’s future care with a child-custody pre-plan codified in a will or other legal document. “These families identify people they know will care for their child, or children, in their absence,” she said.

Mental health services will be an important element in supporting youngsters who have lost a parent and the family units that step up to provide care, experts agree. New Jersey has a well-respected system for triaging and referring children with families in crisis, the Children’s System of Care, run by DCF.

But outpatient behavioral health providers say they are already stretched thin and people can wait weeks, or months, to get care — especially if they are seeking one-on-one counseling or therapy. Need for these services has soared during the pandemic, adding to the capacity crunch.

Brito agreed capacity is a concern in New Jersey and elsewhere; in fact, it is something Children’s Health Fund officials hear from their provider partners across the nation. “DCF and others have their work cut out for them,” he said. “We need to be more creative and use innovative approaches like telehealth where we can,” he added, echoing the position of many health care advocates who see technology as a critical tool for extending the reach of clinical providers, some of whom are in short supply.

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