By Elizabeth Aguilera, CalMatters
In a small town in California’s Central Valley, a trio of siblings lost both parents to COVID-19 two weeks apart in 2021. Their deaths left the eldest son a pseudo-parent to his teenage siblings overnight and forced the siblings to prepare for a future without their mother and father.
In California, 32,000 children under the age of 18 have experienced the death of a parent or primary caregiver due to COVID-19, according to a study by the Global Reference Group for Children Affected by COVID-19. These children – called “COVID orphans” – are likely to face not only financial hardship, but also a lifetime of mental health, educational, relationship and emotional problems, according to the researchers.
Now, California has become the first state to create a financial safety net for some COVID orphans as they reach adulthood. The state allocated $100 million in its recently passed budget to the Children’s Hope, Opportunity, Perseverance, and Empowerment Trust Account Fund, which will initiate trust funds for low-income children who have lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19. Trust funds will also be created for young people in long-term foster care.
The funds, known as “baby bonds,” would be created with state money and allowed to grow until the child turns 18. At that time, the young person could access the fund for housing, education or other expenses.
“This will ensure that the people who need it the most, who have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID, will have a little extra help,” said Emily Walton, policy director of COVID Survivors for Change. , a national organization advocating for benefits for Americans impacted by COVID-19. “The lack of several thousand dollars could prevent a child from moving on and getting an education or finding a job in a place where they know they can succeed.”
Details of the plan will be laid out later this summer in one of several trailer bills, which add details to the state budget. Proponents say eligibility will most likely be tied to enrollment in Medi-Cal, the state health insurance system for low-income Californians. The amounts deposited should reflect the age of the child and how long before that person turns 18.
In the farming town of Coalinga in the Central Valley, Martin, Angel and Miranda Basulto felt lost after both parents died in January 2021.
Their father, Martin Basulto, a truck driver, believed he had been exposed to COVID-19 at work. Their mother, Rosa Garcia Cortez, who worked as a receptionist at a local hotel, fell ill after caring for their father. Basulto, 44, and Garcia Cortez, 46, were taken to a local hospital and within weeks they were both dead.
Overnight, Martin, now 27, was in charge of his family. He returned from Fresno to take on responsibilities such as paying the mortgage and making sure his sister Miranda gets to high school on time.
“At first, I didn’t care about school. I was so angry,” said Miranda, now 17 and about to start her senior year. “We’re all going to die someday, so what’s the point of trying in life? »
But then someone asked her if she wanted to die without reaching her full potential.
“It hit me because I know my parents wanted to do a lot of things in their lives that they couldn’t do,” she said. “So I want to live my life to its fullest potential.”
She is now on the honor roll and is looking forward to college – a dream her father had for her.
The baby’s bonds are essential for their family, Martin said. He remembers their parents helping him with errands or stepping in when he couldn’t pay his own phone bill when he first moved.
Now it’s his turn.
“The smallest amount can go a long way,” Martin said. “I want her to be prepared for when she goes to college and I will help her in any way I can, so any further help available is greatly appreciated.”
Latino children make up the majority — 66% — of COVID orphans in California. Many of them are the sons and daughters of essential workers who were already facing economic uncertainty before the pandemic.
Across the country, non-white children have lost parents or guardians four times more than their white peers, according to a report titled “Hidden Pain, Children who Lost a Parent or Caregiver to COVID-19 and What the Nation can do to Help Them,” published in December by The COVID Collaborative. Nationwide, 250,000 children were orphaned due to the death of at least one parent or primary caregiver in March 2022, reports the Global Reference Group. for children affected by COVID-19.
Children who have lost a primary caregiver to COVID-19 have unique needs, said Marlo Cales, executive director of the Mourning Sun Children’s Foundation, an Apple Valley-based support organization for grieving young people and their families. death or loss of a loved one. one by abandonment, imprisonment or other types of separation. Cales said for survivors of COVID-19, the grief has intensified as many could not come together or mourn their loss with others. The ongoing pandemic prolongs the grief, she said.
“They really feel more alone and isolated,” she said. “Not only have they lost their persona, but they seem to be struggling to connect or find services that meet their particular needs of loss and grief due to the pandemic.”
California’s new program for COVID orphans is part of a broader, long-standing effort to provide trust funds to all low-income children who qualify for Medi-Cal, regardless of the impact of COVID on their families, said Shamika Gaskins, president and CEO of Grace and Child Poverty in California, which argued for the money.
“It’s really part of our longer-term vision to end child poverty in California by closing the racial wealth gap and providing opportunities for our most vulnerable children,” Gaskins said.
Delaware, Washington, Connecticut, Washington DC, New York, and Iowa are considering or have created their own trust fund programs for low-income children. Eligibility for most programs or proposals is tied to qualifying for the Medicaid program in each of these states.
Connecticut and Washington DC approved baby bond programs last year. Connecticut’s program begins in July 2023 and includes deposits of up to $3,200 for each child. The DC program started with babies born in October 2021 and funds are fed by $500 plus annual deposits as long as family income qualifies.
The new California program is the first in the country to provide trust funds for COVID orphans and young people in long-term foster care. Walton, of COVID Survivors for Change, said the organization is working with a handful of states to consider scholarships or similar trust funds for children who have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. .
As a teacher in Marin County, Kate McLaughlin doesn’t think her daughter, Éala, would qualify for the trust fund, but she’s reassured that if her daughter needs support in the future, she could access it. . Her husband, Jason McLaughlin, died of the pandemic virus last year when their daughter was 3. He was 48 years old.
“Our people are not just a number,” she said of those who died from COVID-19. “I want people to know that Jason McLaughlin was a really great guy and an amazing father and he was on this planet and his life mattered.”
A kidney transplant survivor, Jason was immunocompromised.
The family retreated when the pandemic started. Kate thinks Jason was exposed during one of their quick errands at a grocery store or Home Depot. He was sick at home for 10 days before being hospitalized. Kate and Eala also tested positive, but only Kate had symptoms.
Around Valentine’s Day 2021, Jason’s functioning kidney began to fail. He was put on dialysis but died within days.
“I was able to be with him in his final moments,” Kate said. “The biggest challenge for us is adjusting to the gigantic loss of our lives.”
When Jason’s hometown Boston Celtics recently faced the Warriors in the playoffs, Kate felt a wave of grief. He was looking forward to watching matches with his daughter.
“He would love it. He should be here to watch this game, to watch it with her,” Kate said. “To deal with these constant reminders that he’s gone is terrible.”
A study published in the medical journal Pediatrics in October found that orphanage is a secondary tragedy caused by the pandemic. The researchers say that children’s lives are forever changed by the loss of a parent or caregiver and addressing this must be a top priority. It is seen as a negative childhood experience linked to mental health issues, low self-esteem, suicide, and other issues later in life.
The California Trust Funds began with a bill introduced by Democratic Senator Nancy Skinner of Berkeley that sailed through the Legislature. In May, Skinner withdrew the bill because funds for COVID orphans were going to be included in the budget proposal.
“At a time when California is blessed with immense wealth, we can afford to guarantee that children who have suffered inconceivable loss will be comforted in the knowledge that they will have a little help at a time when they have no more. parents to rely on,” Skinner said. said.
In Bakersfield, Hillary Porter monitors the progress of the trust fund program. She is one of the surviving parents who championed the program.
In March 2020, Hillary, her husband Lloyd Porter and their daughter MacLemore were packing up their New York home for a move back to California.
Then Lloyd, an actor, fell ill with COVID-19. Six weeks later he died.
“He really fought the good fight. He kind of rallied,” Hillary said. “I was planning rehab for him and all of a sudden he was gone.”
Hillary and their daughter stayed the course and backed off as the family had planned.
Lloyd grew up in Bakersfield and Hillary in Salinas. College sweethearts, the couple met at Fresno State when they were leaders of black student organizations.
Lloyd was the kind of guy who literally took off his sweatshirt and gave it to a young man arriving in San Francisco who didn’t realize how cold it would be, his wife said.
“Because my husband passed away in May 2020, we weren’t able to have a funeral, we weren’t able to get together with friends or family. It really felt like we were in a bubble,” she said. “It adds another layer of trauma or grief.”
She turns to the trust fund to help children with mental health support as well as college.
“Children, when they become adults, can now dream a little bigger,” Hilary said. “It could change the trajectory of their goals at 18.”