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  • In the interest of helping children orphaned by the pandemic, Melissa Langsam Braunstein spoke to a few experts about ways government officials and private individuals might help. Tweet This
  • Providing kinship care, increasing school flexibility, involving religious communities, and trauma-informed training for caregivers are some of the ways we can help COVID orphans. Tweet This

The Atlantic recently ran an article urging the federal government to do more to help the country’s children who lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19.1 It was long on urging assistance but shorter on detailed remedies. 

The federal government clearly has a role to play, but it can’t solve this problem singlehandedly, as much of the relevant control remains at state and local levels. It’s also not entirely clear that the problems faced by the estimated 200,000 COVID orphans can be disentangled from the problems facing children in kinship care or the 400,000 children currently in the foster system more generally. Lauri Currier, executive director of Arkansas’ The Call, told me, “What children and youth need most is safety, stability, support, and in many cases, trauma-informed therapies.” 

In the interest of helping children who lost a parent or primary caregiver to the pandemic, I spoke to a few experts who offered specific suggestions about ways government officials and private individuals might help. Here is what they said:

Provide kinship care. “If a relative or a close family friend is in need, consider offering kinship care,” Currier urges. “It maintains the child or youth’s connections with family, increases stability, and minimizes the trauma of family separation.”

Reach out to your religious community. Currier also encourages people to ask religious community leaders “if they are aware of the needs of vulnerable children and youth in your community, and if there is a way that you could help.” Churches and other religious organizations have been at the forefront of encouraging more Americans to foster and adopt. Relatedly, participation in communal religious services benefits adolescent health; regular attendees are 12% less likely to be highly depressed and 33% less likely to be illegal drug users.

Offer meaningful personal support. Currier believes everyone can do something to help families providing kinship care, fostering, or adopting. “Provide meals, babysitting, or transportation. Throw a birthday party,” she suggests. “Purchase groceries or household items. Mow a yard, rake leaves, or plant flowers. Offer prayer support or send personal notes of encouragement.”

Centralize relevant information. New Mexico-based child advocate Kelly Rosati says that we need “easy to access, single-source information regarding assistance available to caregivers.” She envisions “a federal website with simple directions about assistance already available and how to access it,” noting it should also “include information on ways to access medical coverage and financial and other assistance.”

Expedite health coverage. The loss of a parent or primary caregiver can also mean the loss of health insurance. “Those children should immediately and presumptively [be] eligible for health care coverage through Medicaid expansion, risk pools or some other mechanism,” Rosati urges, because “if [they] are now living with relatives, there will be no formal relationship established quickly (guardianship or adoption), [and] therefore no ability to join the health plan of your aunt, uncle, or grandparent.”

Fund foster care. Rosati believes that any children orphaned by COVID-19 who land in the foster care system will need what their peers in foster care do, namely, a 

massive influx of funding to support reasonable caseload levels for social workers, enough guardian ad litems to ensure kids best interests are paramount in court, recruiting, training, and supporting good kinship, foster, and adoptive parents to meet the needs of kids in the system and to provide the services they need to recover from their trauma and loss.

Expedite approval for caregivers. Indiana-based licensed mental health counselor Robin Atkins observes that more families might volunteer to help if they “could be expedited for approval” through pre-existing “clearance/background checks and assistance with obtaining larger housing and vehicles.”

Prepare caregivers. Atkins also recommends “trauma-informed care classes” for families, along with continuous mental health and social support. Being removed from family and matched with strangers can traumatize children, and “families can better support a child going through those situations if they know how to recognize” trauma, she said.

Offer tax incentives. Noting that adoption ends financial assistance from the state, Atkins offered, “It would be nice if the community could come around these families with support.” That could, of course, include tax breaks to those who donate time—like mental health professionals—or items to adoptive families.

Modify family court. No Way to Treat a Child author Naomi Schaefer Riley believes policy makers should “do more to ensure kids aren’t floating in temporary situations for a long time.” Practically speaking, more federal funding could “ensure cases move more quickly, or family court can hire more judges and lawyers for what could be an influx of cases after courts shut down for so long. They could give money for more staff in court to make sure that kids move to permanency faster.”

Expand school flexibility. Schools are a source of stability for children, Schaefer Riley notes that if a child “were in a particular school system and wanted to stay there—if the caretaker is living a little farther away—try to keep that part of the kid’s life stable because there’s so much other turnover.” 

Increase mental health service flexibility. Commenting on the importance of mental health services for children dealing with traumatic loss, Schaefer Riley emphasizes “finding ways [to compensate] providers for kids in these very vulnerable situations. It’s almost impossible to find a provider who takes insurance these days, let alone Medicaid.” Congress could also help children needing longer-term, inpatient psychiatric care by changing 1970s-era rules that make it difficult for traumatized children in foster care to use Medicaid for inpatient care.

Helping children who’ve experienced something as traumatic as losing their parents or other caregivers to COVID-19 won’t be a small undertaking, but it’s one our country should prioritize and do right. That means corralling relevant help from all levels of government, as well as involving caring individuals and community organizations. This is a puzzle with many facets, but by addressing them all, children orphaned by COVID can surely get their urgent needs met.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein is an independent writer in metro Washington.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

1. Note: COVID-associated orphanhood is defined in the study as the death of a parent or grandparent caregiver.