Nearly 1,200 children in Massachusetts lost a parent or grandparent during the initial 15 months of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a devastating new study that captures the reverberating intergenerational trauma wrought by COVID-19.
Children from racial and ethnic monitories experienced a disproportionate share of the loss throughout the country — and here in Massachusetts, according to the study’s lead author, Susan Hillis.
The study, published last week in the journal Pediatrics, estimates that more than 140,000 children in the United States lost a parent or grandparent caregiver from April 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021. Yet based on coronavirus-related deaths over the last three months, Hillis — an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — told NPR that about 175,000 children have now lost a parent or grandparent.
That depth of loss, researchers warn, can lead to mental health problems, lower self-esteem, unstable housing and violence, among an array of concerns.
In minority communities in Massachusetts, the highest share of loss was experienced by Hispanic children, followed by Black children and Asian children, Hillis told MassLive.
“There are marked racial and ethnic disparities, as the share of the children affected by death of primary caregivers for Black and for Hispanic children is much greater than the share of Black and Hispanic persons in the total population and of all COVID deaths,” Hillis said in an emailed response.
Researchers found that for the United States overall, nearly one-third of children who lost a caregiver were Hispanic and just over one-fourth were Black.
Coronavirus-related orphanhood, or death of grandparent caregivers, impacted 1 in every 753 white children, the study found. That compares to 1 in 412 Hispanic children, 1 in 310 Black children, and in 168 American Indian/Alaska native children.
Across New England, Massachusetts recorded the highest number of children orphaned due to coronavirus-related deaths, according to the study’s estimates.
About 1,063 children experienced the death of a primary caregiver in Connecticut, followed by 348 children in Maine, 202 children in Rhode Island, 171 children in Vermont and 161 children in New Hampshire.
To foster resilience in grieving children, the study states that programs and policies are needed to “promote safe, stable, nurturing relationships and address childhood adversity, including preventing violence and abuse.”
Hillis said an emergency response for children should involve an equitable COVID-19 vaccination process, with the goal of preventing coronavirus-related deaths among parents and caregivers.
Families also need resources to “provide safe and loving kinship, foster and adoptive care where needed,” Hillis said.
Children can be protected from violence and adversity, according to the study, through family strategies like positive parenting skills and income strengthening. Hillis called for a system that links children to trusted community networks and organizations close to where they live.
“All children orphaned by COVID-related causes…need dedicated resources,” Hillis said. “From the child’s viewpoint, it does not matter whether the parent died from COVID, or from a heart attack when the parent could not access adequate medical care, or from suicide or overdose due to depression during the pandemic.”