‘COVID Orphans': Estimated 40,000 U.S. Children Have Lost at Least 1 Parent to COVID

As COVID-19 turns more children into orphans, siblings step up to fill the void

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Juan Martinez is not your typical Southern California teenager. 

Martinez was forced into a huge responsibility at age 19 — caring for four of his younger siblings after his 43-year-old mother died from coronavirus last August.

The Palmdale, California, teen says he now cooks, cleans and helps his siblings, aged 7 to 16, with their online schooling. But this isn't even the hardest part.

“It’s still hard on them, but I try to comfort them the best way I can,” Martinez said of his grieving siblings. “At times, we’ll cry together. When I told them, there was screaming and crying. I spoke to them and told them I would do the best I can to raise them and I wouldn't let anything happen to them.” 

With more people getting vaccinated and schools reopening, the lives of many U.S. children are starting to feel a bit more "normal."  Yet, according to new research, about 40,000 children in the U.S. are dealing with an irreparable reality: the loss of one or both parents from COVID-19.

Black children have been disproportionately affected. Although they make up only 14% of children in the U.S., Black children account for 20% of kids who have lost a parent to COVID-19.

The researchers, including one from the University of Southern California, said their findings demonstrate yet another reason to reduce COVID-19 deaths among all age groups. They point to prior research that shows children who lose a parent are at a higher risk of traumatic grief, depression and poor educational outcomes.

Study co-author Emily Smith-Greenaway is an associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“Many of these negative outcomes associated with parental death don't go away,” Smith-Greenaway said. "They persist into young adulthood, even older adulthood."

Sudden parent deaths, like those caused by COVID-19, can be particularly traumatizing for children, Smith-Greenaway said. The fact that these losses are occurring at a time of social isolation, economic hardship and closed schools may leave many children who experience the death of a parent without structure and emotional support.

Smith-Greenaway wants the federal government to start collecting the names of children who have lost a parent or primary caregiver and connect them with services — similar to the effort to support families after the 9/11 tragedy.

“You know, to actually be the first to work to enumerate how many kids are affected, we really hope this will set into motion a more comprehensive federal response,” Smith-Greenaway said.  

The research shows three-quarters of children who lost a parent to COVID were adolescents, and 1 in 4 were children younger than 10. The analysis used COVID-19 deaths and death counts between February 2020 and February 2021. 

Besides taking care of his siblings, Martinez is now working as a security guard and has moved his family of five into a Los Angeles-area mobile home. He relies on a babysitter to watch the other kids while he's at work.

Martinez still fights lingering fatigue from his own battle with COVID-19. But he and his siblings are managing as a family, although he said this past Mother's Day was especially difficult for all of them.

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