Over 140,000 children have experienced the loss of a parent or caretaker since the COVID-19 pandemic started, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Thursday.
The study, which considered data from April 2020 until June 2021, quantified an under-discussed issue of the pandemic: the magnitude of trauma children who’ve lost guardians have suffered at home, even as the virus continues to largely target adults.
It also found that the burden of grief has fallen hardest on children of color.
Nearly one in 500 children have lost a mother, father or grandparent who cared for them since April of 2020, the study found. But the majority of children, almost seven out of every 10 who have lost parents or caretakers during the pandemic, are Black, Hispanic or Native American.
The authors of the study called for federal attention and resources to address the trauma, which will continue to grow as long as the pandemic continues. Already, the authors estimate the number of children who’ve experience loss is higher than 140,000, because of the delta variant surge that hit the U.S. over the summer after the study concluded.
One of out of every 168 American Indian and Alaska Native children have lost a parent or grandparent who cared for them. During the same time, one out of every 310 Black children have faced such loss. For white children, the risk is lower; one out of every 753 children have lost a parent or caregiver.
The study showed the highest burden of death occurred in Southern border states for Hispanic children, Southeastern states for Black children, and in states with tribal areas for American Indian/Alaska Native populations.
“We were quite disturbed by the racial and ethnic disparities that were appearing in our data,” Susan Hillis, the lead author on the CDC study, told ABC News.
The CDC didn’t collect data to explain why those disparities exist, but research over the course of the pandemic has shown grave inequities in health care have led to higher death rates for communities of color. The CDC study published Thursday also found that parents generally had more children in demographics that were hit hardest by loss.
During the research period, Hillis said she was picturing a group of first-graders, all from different backgrounds and parts of the country.
“In my mind’s eye, there’s five children standing together and having such an extreme difference in their risk of having to face the death of the very person who is supposed to provide their love, security, education and care,” she said.
“We’re compelled to mount a response that’s effective for them — for all of them,” she said.
The data suggests that the country needs to build an “urgently needed” pillar into its COVID-19 response, specifically for children, Hillis said.
While she was working on the research, Hillis met a 16-year-old girl named Katie who had lost her dad to the virus.
“She said, ‘People with COVID in our country, most of them do recover, even though my daddy didn’t. However, I will never recover,'” Hillis recalled. “I will not have my daddy with me when I go to the prom, to take pictures beforehand, he will not walk me down the aisle, he will never be with me for another special event in my whole life. I need people to understand, recognize, see and help people like me.”
Losing a parent leads to an increased risk of mental health problems, abuse, unstable housing and poverty, the study said, and for children of single parents, it could mean an immediate need for new housing — whether that is moving in with other family members who can step in and care for them, or going to foster care.
“The critical point to remember is: Not only does it affect the child now, in the short term, but it does really stay with them for the rest of their lives,” Hillis said. “The good news is we do have programs that can help address them, and we have people ready to help implement the programs that work, so I’m encouraged about that.”
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