A growing number of Colorado children have lost a caregiver due to COVID

The more than an estimated 1,700 kids in the state who have lost a caregiver could experience lifelong impact

By: - March 1, 2022 4:30 am

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As the number of COVID-19 deaths increases each day, so does the number of children who experience the death of a parent or caregiver.

In Colorado, 166 per 100,000 children experienced a COVID-associated death of a primary caregiver, according to an estimate from a study published in the Pediatrics journal in December. 

More than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary caregiver due to a COVID-associated death between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, the study said, though this number grew to at least 170,000 in early October, according to The Atlantic

Impact of losing a caregiver 

An immediate consequence for a child who experiences a parent or primary caregiver loss is an increase in worry and fear about whether the child or the child’s family is safe, said Alex Mers, the director of programs at Judi’s House. 

Judi’s House is a community-based nonprofit in Denver that serves families who experience a death. Judi’s House has not seen many families impacted by a caregiver death due to COVID, but each year the organization supports hundreds of children and their families who experience the loss of an important person in their lives, according to Julie Scott, the director of philanthropy and communications at Judi’s House. 

Children who lose a parent or caregiver may have fears about what will happen to them, or what will happen to their surviving parent, Mers said. Some children might experience loneliness and isolation, which can create a tendency to disengage from the world around them, Mers said. “You can see kids who were once social and engaging in fun things retract from relationships and activities that used to feel good to them, that no longer feel enjoyable.” 

If you or someone you know is in a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. In Colorado, you can contact Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255.

Some children might question what the death says about them and what it means for their future. Some children might experience self-blame, which can cause feelings of guilt or regret. 

“So you imagine being a kid and all of these feelings and thoughts impacting you, and then trying to go to school and learn new things and finish your homework and take tests, and really show up in the world, when your brain is experiencing grief. It’s very difficult,” Mers said.  

Children who experience grief may have a difficult time focusing in class or retaining information. 

“Grief responses are complex and can be different for each child,” Jamie Murray, the behavioral health coordinator for Cañon City School District, wrote in an email to Newsline. 

Losing a primary caregiver is always an adverse experience, because it is not an expected experience in childhood, said Ayelet Talmi, director of the the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Harris Program, which provides clinical training and research into infant and early childhood mental health.

“Children depend on their primary caregivers and their relationships with primary caregivers for their safety, their nurturing, for connection and for meeting their needs, both basic needs and their emotional needs. When a child, at age in childhood, loses a caregiver, that disrupts their safety, stability, their daily lives are often dramatically disrupted, and it has a huge lifelong impact on childhood, and on how you grow up.” 

Depending on the child’s age and the type of death, there are different impacts, but losing a caregiver has a lifelong impact, Talmi said. “That grief and loss is felt forever.”

A note is written on a flag at the Center For Independence in Grand Junction, which commemorated 334 lives lost to COVID-19 during an art installation, seen Nov. 1, 2021. Each white flag represents a person who has died in Mesa County from the pandemic. (Courtesy of Katherine Lopez)

The loss of a parent is associated with mental health problems, lower self-esteem and risks of suicide, violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, according to the study published in Pediatrics. 

Difficult to determine numbers

It is difficult to determine the exact number of children who lost primary caregivers due to COVID-19.

More than 5,800,000 people have died of COVID across the world. A study published in the Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, found that between March 1, 2020, and April 30, 2021, over 860,000 children in 21 countries lost a parent or custodial grandparent due to a COVID-associated death. The study found that the countries with the highest number of children who lost a caregiver in that period were South Africa, Peru, the United States, India, Brazil and Mexico.

Over 12,000 people in Colorado have died due to COVID. The Colorado Department of Human Services does not have data related to how many of these people were parents, or how many had children under the age of 18, according to Jordan Johnson, the interim deputy director of communications for the CDHS. 

“While, as a system, we do not track at a granular level whether a young person is entering foster care due to a COVID-19 related loss of a caregiver, it would be a rare situation if our services had to be accessed because there were no available next of kin to provide care and safety to a child whose parents had passed away unexpectedly,” Johnson wrote in response to Newsline’s inquiry about whether there has been an increase in the number of children who have entered Colorado’s foster care system, compared to previous, non-COVID years. 

The Colorado Department of Education does not collect the number of parent or caregiver deaths, according to a communications specialist for the CDE.

The Colorado State Joint Information Center vital records do not include information on whether the deceased person was a parent, a spokesperson wrote in an email to Newsline. 

Denver Public Schools does not track deaths of primary caregivers, and there is no formal process for a family to report the death of a caregiver, Scott Pribble, media relations manager for DPS, wrote in an email to Newsline. 

Approximately 1 in 450 children in the United States have lost at least one caregiver to COVID, according to a report released by COVID Collaborative and Social Policy Analytics in December. 

Number of children in Colorado who experienced the death of a caregiver from COVID between Jan. 1, 2020 and Nov. 17, 2021

  • 0-4 years old: 300
  • 5-13 years old: 876
  • 14-17 years old: 547

Rate of children per 100,000 in Colorado who experienced the death of a caregiver from COVID between Jan. 1, 2020 and Nov. 17, 2021

  • Asian: 213
  • Non-Hispanic Black: 177
  • Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 41
  • Hispanic: 224
  • American Indian or Alaska Native children: 335
  • Non-Hispanic white: 82

According to a report from Social Policy Analytics and COVID Collaborative

Over 1,700 children in Colorado experienced the loss of a caregiver due to COVID between Jan. 1, 2020 and Nov. 17, 2021, according to the report. The majority of these children were between the ages of 5 and 13. 

Over 185 per 100,000 children between the ages of 14 and 17 in Colorado experienced the death of a caregiver due to COVID in that period, according to the report. The rate for children in Colorado between the ages of 5 and 13 who lost a caregiver due to COVID was almost 140 per 100,000 children. For children 4 years old and younger, the rate was over 90 per 100,000 children.

Across the country, 70% of caregiver loss affected children 13 and younger, according to the report’s key findings. The report found that, nationwide, Black and Hispanic children lost caregivers from COVID at almost 2.5 times the rate of white children.

Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas had the highest rates of caregiver loss from COVID. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin had the lowest rates. 

“For these children, COVID has done more than hurt their lives; it has ended their world,” the report’s authors wrote in an open letter to the American people. “Especially early in development, a parent or family caregiver fills a child’s entire sky — providing most of his or her stability, confidence and care. The sudden, seemingly unexplainable departure of a caregiver leaves a void of affection and direction that each child will struggle to fill.”

Mental health crisis 

Colorado children and adolescents who lost a primary caregiver are not the only ones struggling. The demand for mental health services for children in Colorado has increased significantly. 

Children’s Hospital Colorado has seen a 90% increase in demand for behavioral health treatment in the past two years, according to a May statement.

“What we are seeing is more acute distress and sometimes even mental health issues at younger ages, because of the severity and the toll on the daily lives of children and adolescents,” Talmi said. 

Things that children and adolescents expect to be doing, like going to school, being able to be with extended family members and being with friends has been profoundly changed by the pandemic, and by the necessary safety and health restrictions, Talmi said. 

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency for pediatric mental health — the first time it was declared in the hospital’s system, which started over 110 years ago — in May 2021, according to the statement. “I’ve been in practice for over 20 years in pediatrics and I’ve never seen anything like the demand for mental health services we’ve seen at Children’s Colorado in the past 15 months,” David Brumbaugh, the chief medical officer for Children’s Colorado, said in the statement.

The need for emergency mental health services at Children’s Hospital Colorado surged 73% over the past two years, Brumbaugh said in a November statement. “Unfortunately, six months later, with the continued aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to reverberate throughout Colorado, we are still in a State of Emergency.”

When Dawn Boden, a counseling services facilitator at Colorado Springs School District 11, asked school counselors for the top mental health concerns that have arisen during the past two years, concern for students who lost a close family member, either due to COVID or other reasons, was one of the top three concerns mentioned, Boden wrote in an email to Newsline. 

The state’s response 

Last year, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bipartisan bill that established the I Matter program, which gives young people access to free mental health services. The program has provided over 1,300 therapy sessions, with more appointments scheduled, according to a CDHS statement last month. As of Jan. 24, over 650 young Coloradans had participated in at least one therapy session. The program provides young people with three to six behavioral health sessions, free of charge, and reimburses participating providers. 

“COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how our youth interact and connect with others,” Michelle Barnes, the executive director of CDHS, said in the statement. 

The program was in direct response to the mental health stressors that kids and adolescents are experiencing due to the pandemic, such as heightened anxiety and fear, according to the statement.

People ages 18 and under, or 21 or under, if they receive special education services, are eligible to participate. 

Local efforts to combat mental health crisis

The number of requests for mentors has increased exponentially, said Elycia Cook, the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado, a nonprofit that works to create mentoring relationships.

“One of the recognized ways to combat loneliness, or just to help kids, is to have a trusting, caring adult in their lives, who is not a family member,” Cook said.

While the need for mentors increased through the pandemic, the number of people applying to become mentors did not. The organization added more group programs to meet the needs of their existing children, as well as the inquiries. “We’re currently in need of more volunteers and more mentors, because the calls keep coming in, especially for the 13 to 17 year olds,” Cook said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado is just shy of 900 matches, Cook said, which is down from pre-pandemic numbers.

COVID-19 has killed more than 940,000 people in the United States, including over 12,000 in Colorado.

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