Hidden Pain: 167,000 have lost parents or caregivers to COVID-19. What are we going to do about it? 


December 14, 2021

More than 167,000 children – roughly one out of every 450 in the U.S. — have lost a parent or other primary caregiver to COVID-19, according to a new, bipartisan report released last week by COVID Collaborative and Social Policy Analytics. 

The report, Hidden Pain: Children Who Lost a Parent or Caregiver to COVID-19 and What the Nation Can Do to Help Them, offers a roadmap to support and provide for these children, roughly half of whom are in elementary or junior high school. 

“As the nation looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an urgent need to address the crisis of children left behind,” said John Bridgeland, Co-Founder and CEO of COVID Collaborative in a statement accompanying the report’s release. “For these children, their whole sky has fallen, and supporting them through this trauma must be a top priority. Today’s report is a rallying cry for the nation to help the children who have lost parents and other caregivers to COVID-19.” 

The report found stark racial disparities in loss of parents and caregivers. American Indian and Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander children experienced the highest rate of loss at nearly four times that of White children. Black and Hispanic children experienced more than twice the rate of loss of White children. Seventy percent of caregiver loss affected those 13 and younger. 

“The children most likely to lose a caregiver to COVID-19 are also most likely to have faced previous adversities that hinder their ability to cope and show resilience,” said Dan Treglia, co-author of the report and Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. “They are dealing with personal tragedies in the midst of national uncertainty, stress, and turmoil, and leaders face a responsibility to support COVID-bereaved children and their remaining caregivers to maximize their chances of resilience and success.” 

Former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, serve as Co-Chairs of COVID Collaborative. “The consequences of losing a parent can persist throughout a child’s lifetime,” they said in a joint statement. “As a compassionate nation, America must provide the support these children need during this time of great challenge.” 

The impacts of losing one or both parents can include anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, suicide, poor academic outcomes, increased rates of high school dropout, economic turmoil, and general instability. 

The report states that policymakers, educators, nonprofits, and the private sector can take steps to help children and youth to address their grief and trauma. It recommends concerted efforts within schools, health care service providers, and faith-based communities to identify and connect children and families to supports; a COVID-Bereaved Children’s Fund; expanding access to high-quality early childhood programming and social and emotional learning in schools; structured mentoring, peer support, and grief camps; and expansion of mental health care.  

The Biden Administration and House appropriators have proposed significant increases in children’s mental health services for the current fiscal year, but Congress has not yet been able to agree on FY 2022 appropriations, instead approving only flat-funded extensions (the newest lasting to February 18) to avoid a government shutdown. This report underscores the urgency of finalizing funding. If the House proposals are adopted, Children’s Mental Health services would rise from $125m to $150m, there would be a $28.1 million increase to the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative, and a $17 million increase for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health. The Biden Administration and lawmakers have not yet created initiatives specifically for the tens of thousands of children who have lost parents and primary caregivers to Covid-19. 

The New York Times reported that Kempthorne, Patrick and others have been meeting behind the scenes with White House officials, urging them to do more. They are asking President Biden to launch a national campaign to identify these children and, with help from the private sector, take steps to improve their emotional and economic well-being. They have proposed increased mental health care and creation of a “Covid Bereaved Children’s Fund,” similar to a fund established after the Sept. 11 attacks, to provide up to $10,000 to families in need. 

“The president is uniquely positioned to put an official imprimatur on the call in this report to coordinate all resources, public and private, at every level of government and every level of the private sector and philanthropy to help these children,” Patrick told the Times. “It’s a tragedy not of their making, but they’re our kids. They belong to us, and all we are saying is, ‘Let’s act like it.’” 

The report’s release came just two days after U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy issued a rare, 53-page advisory warning that young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects as a result of the challenges experienced by their generation, including the coronavirus pandemic. 

The advisory noted that the pandemic intensified mental health issues that were already widespread by the spring of 2020, well before the worst days of the pandemic. It cited significant increases in self-reports of depression, anxiety and emergency-room visits for mental health challenges. In the U.S., emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51 percent for adolescent girls in early 2021 as compared with the same period in 2019. The figure rose 4 percent for boys.