For every four COVID-19-associated deaths, one child was left without a mother, father, and/or grandparent who provided the child’s home and basic needs, including love, security, and daily care. 

A study released yesterday in the journal Pediatric reports on orphanhood and caregiver deaths associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. As the National Institutes of Health summarized, approximately 1 out of 500 children in the United States has experienced COVID-19-associated orphanhood or the death of a grandparent caregiver. Between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, 142,637 children lost a primary or secondary caregiver. Significant racial, ethnic, and geographic disparities in COVID-19-associated deaths of caregivers exist: children of racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 65 percent of those who lost a primary caregiver due to the pandemic.

The greatest disparities were among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native children and Black children. The study showed that 1 of every 168 American Indian/Alaska Native children, 1 of every 310 Black children, 1 of every 412 Hispanic children, 1 of every 612 Asian children, and 1 of every 753 White children experienced orphanhood or death of caregivers due to COVID-19.

The death of a caregiver is recognized as an adverse childhood experience that increases the risk of short-term trauma and lifelong adverse consequences, including risks from major causes of death such as major chronic diseases, infectious diseases, suicide, and others in adulthood. 

The natural helping systems in tribal communities and extended family networks, critical sources of support and healing, have been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. Federal and state policies sometimes create barriers and disincentives to extended family care. Service delivery realities in many tribal communities, such as remoteness, transportation infrastructure, and communication technology, require a different response and flexibility from funders than currently exists in many federal programs. 

Tribal and urban Indian communities have the answers to many of these kinds of problems but often are not actively engaged by policymakers and administration officials who are addressing these issues. The Indian Health Service, tribal programs, and urban Indian organizations need additional support and resources to develop more child-focused and trauma-informed solutions, including dramatically increasing the number of child-trained therapists. Tribal nations need the flexibility to use their federal and state funds to care for children struggling with grief in culturally responsive ways.

About NICWA: The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) works to support the safety, health, and spiritual strength of Native children along the broad continuum of their lives. NICWA promotes building tribal capacity to prevent child abuse and neglect through positive systems change at the state, federal, and tribal level. For more information, visit www.nicwa.org.

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