This story was produced as a collaboration between THE CITY, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations as part of “MISSING THEM,” THE CITY’s collaborative COVID-19 memorial and accountability journalism project. Do you know a child who has lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19? Tell us more here.
The city’s child welfare agency would be required to submit reports on kids who lost a parent or caregiver to COVID under a new bill that aims to bring more transparency to the pandemic’s toll on families.
The bill, sponsored by Councilmember Shaun Abreu (D-Manhattan), was discussed at a hearing Wednesday with officials from the Administration for Children’s Services.
“We know that thousands of children lost caregivers to COVID, and we know the city plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety and well-being of these youths,” Abreu told THE CITY after the hearing. “We look forward to continuing this conversation with the administration.”
Under the proposed legislation, ACS would have to supply the City Council speaker and the mayor with quarterly data on all minors placed in foster care due to a death of a caregiver from the coronavirus.
The reports would also include demographic data on any child in contact with ACS because of a COVID death, according to the bill.
ACS would additionally have to submit data on elder siblings up to age 26 who have become the primary caregiver because of a COVID-related death and are receiving city services, and on other kids whose families are receiving help who lost a parent or caregiver, such as at an expanding network of care centers.
Around 1 in every 200 children in New York City have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID — roughly the equivalent population of 15 average-sized public schools. Black, Hispanic and Asian children were three times more likely to have lost a parent compared with white children.
Abreu cited THE CITY’s reporting on the disparate impact on children across New York as part of his appeal to the City Council.
“It’s no surprise to those of us who represent communities like mine,” said the Council member, whose district stretches from the Upper West Side to Morningside Heights.
The bill has overwhelming support in the Council, with 45 co-sponsors.
Keeping Families Together
Most children who lose a parent to COVID-19 are cared for by other family members. A small number, however, are placed in foster care. Since the start of the pandemic, only five children from three families have been placed in foster care after losing a caregiver, according to ACS.
At Wednesday’s hearing, ACS Commissioner Jess Dannhauser expressed concerns over the reporting requirements in the bill, saying with such a small number of children placed under ACS care, some parts could violate confidentiality laws.
An agency spokesperson who did not want to be named later said that because “child welfare case information is confidential … providing the information sought about ‘unique needs of such children and households’ would risk violating confidentiality.”
Meanwhile the number of youth who have lost a parent or caregiver continues to grow. As of the end of May, around 8,700 children in the city were bereaved, according to an analysis by Dan Treglia, an associate professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania, using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Treglia analyzed the data for the COVID Collaborative, a bipartisan group of experts advocating for more support and funding for COVID-bereaved children.
More than 40,000 people in New York City have died of COVID since March of 2020. With the overwhelming majority of those deaths being adults over 40, the number is made up of many parents, grandparents and others who cared for thousands of children.
At the hearing, Dannhauser noted the ways his agency is supporting families who lost relatives and caregivers to COVID. Those include expanding Family Enrichment Centers into neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID — from three now to a planned 30 over the next “few years,” the commissioner said.
The centers offer resources and programming for families in order to keep them together throughout hardships, according to the agency. Currently there are two in The Bronx and one in Brooklyn.
‘Another Layer of Grief’
But some say there haven’t been enough resources for families rocked by the death of a loved one due to COVID.
At the Grant Houses in Harlem, at least 33 residents died of COVID as the first wave hit the city, including several people with children, according to former tenants association president Carlton Davis.
“I’m still in shock about it,” he said, noting that the city hasn’t offered many resources to those families who lost loved ones. Some moved away or were evicted from their apartments, and he said the complex still feels “empty.”
“It’s scattered out here,” he said.
Rehana Smith was living in Queens when she lost her husband, Rovin Anthony Smith, on May 1, 2020. He was 39 and left behind their two young sons. She’s since moved to Florida to be closer to her husband’s family and for a fresh start for her children.
“I didn’t want my kids living in the past,” Smith told THE CITY. She said she wished more support services were available for families like hers.
“I don’t get help for the kids, that’s a fact,” she said. “Life goes on. We try to cope with everything.”
Abreu said he hopes his bill and others will lead to more support for families affected by the deadly virus.
“COVID-19 laid bare the impacts of systemic racism all across this city — and disparities like these reflect yet another layer of grief we must contend with in the coming years,” he said.
MISSING THEM is supported, in part, by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia Journalism School.