More Than 250,000 US Children Have Lost a Parent or Caregiver to COVID-19

A new study shows more than 250,000 U.S. children have lost a caregiver due to the pandemic and are at risk for many troubling issues.

The death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, and it's left many children without a parent or caregiver. According to sobering data from an international study published in JAMA Pediatrics, between January 2020 and March 2022, more than 10.5 million children under the age of 18 worldwide were left orphaned and or grieving the loss of important caregiving figures. For historical context, an estimated 17 million children worldwide lost one or both parents to the crushing HIV/AIDS crisis.

Researchers broke down the staggering numbers in their study to include 8 million kids who lost one or both parents and an additional 2.5 million who lost a caregiving figure such as a grandparent or another relative in a caregiving role. Around the world, the death toll was not equal, as reflected in the report's findings, which included 7.5 million kids who have been orphaned.

In the United States, according to the report, an estimated 250,000 children have lost a parent or caregiver. Sadly, the report highlights the various ways in which governments have done little to support the kids left behind, and when compared to the children impacted by the AIDS/HIV humanitarian crisis, researchers see possibilities for how to extend help to kids who need it immediately. Peru and the US have stepped up to address the immediate needs of orphans, but more needs to be done.

Researchers with JAMA Pediatrics spell out two important ways that governments can step up to assist kids who have been orphaned or experienced caregiver loss. First, to prevent more COVID-19-related deaths by ramping up vaccines, containment, and treatment. And second, to provide families with safe childcare backup plans that include economic and educational support.

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The long-term effects on these children can be just as devastating. Researchers say "parentally bereaved children" are at risk of suffering traumatic grief, depression, difficulties in school, and unintentional death or suicide—all issues that can affect them for many years to come. This is at a time when children and teens have already been negatively impacted by changes the pandemic has brought, including isolation and routine disruptions. A C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health published in March 2021 revealed nearly half of parents noticed a "new or worsening mental health condition" in their teens.

"Considerable research has documented the possible irreversible impact of the pandemic for youth, including the long-term educational, economic, and mental health consequences," Emily Smith-Greenaway, associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the co-author of a COVID-19 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, told USC News. "These consequences may be exaggerated among children who have lost family members and can persist for many years, even into adulthood."

Interventions can help prevent these consequences, but they need to come at a national level, researchers say. "Sweeping national reforms are needed to address the health, educational, and economic fallout affecting children. Parentally bereaved children will also need targeted support to help with grief, particularly during this period of heightened social isolation," another JAMA report reads.

It continues, "The establishment of a national child bereavement cohort could identify children who have lost parents, monitor them for early identification of emerging challenges, link them to locally delivered care, and form the basis for a longitudinal study of the long-term effects of mass parental bereavement during a uniquely challenging time of social isolation and economic uncertainty."

In the meantime, there are ways parents and loved ones can help their grieving children, even by seeking out virtual help from a professional. Pediatricians and school guidance counselors are also good places for parents to turn to ask questions and find appropriate help.

Researchers note that parentally bereaved children can and do benefit from even brief interventions that attend to their physical, emotional, and mental health needs and may even stave off developing severe psychological problems. They suggest that kids who have lost a parent or parental caregiver could be identified and connected to specific services to help monitor their grief and needs.

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