Thousands of children in Texas have lost parents to COVID, and families must pick up the pieces

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Robert Villegas was cutting his son’s hair at his home near Corpus Christi in January, when he started to breathe heavily. His wife, Valérie, a palliative care nurse, knew something was wrong. A check of his oxygen levels, which were dropping to dangerous levels, confirmed this.

Soon after, the Villegas and three of their six children packed up in their car and headed to the Northshore Emergency Center in Portland. Unable to get inside due to COVID-19 restrictions, three-year-old Robert Jr., whose haircut is still unfinished, said goodbye to his father. It was the last time he had seen her.

More than 140,000 children – including 14,000 in Texas – have lost at least one parent or caregiver to COVID-19 in the first 14 months of the pandemic, according to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the The impact will be felt beyond families who suddenly lost heads of households, employees, caregivers and the love of parents and spouses. Study after study, it has been shown that single-parent households are likely to do worse than those with two parents and more likely to fall into poverty and all that this entails, including increased risks of unstable, low-income housing. education and mental health issues.

The academy’s study, released in October, also highlighted how the pandemic has disproportionately affected minorities. In Texas, for example, about 58 percent of children who lost their parents were Hispanic and 16 percent were black.

These heartbreaking statistics can be explained in part by the fact that some minority groups have larger families, which means the loss of a parent affects more children. But other factors were also at work.

More than 70% of black and Hispanic men hold frontline positions in industries such as retail, warehousing, meat packaging and healthcare, increasing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 , according to at the National Institutes of Health. Hispanics were nearly twice as likely to contract COVID-19 as non-Hispanic whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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Additionally, deep-rooted inequalities in the healthcare system have put certain racial and ethnic groups at higher risk for diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease, which would make them more vulnerable to COVID and likely experience worse. results if they caught it.

“The entire pandemic has highlighted these health disparities between racial and ethnic groups,” said Susan Hillis, author of the report.

Other epidemics, such as the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, have increased the number of children who lose one or both parents, Hillis said. What sets COVID-19 apart is how quickly the disease can progress, leaving families with little time to prepare for the loss.

“With COVID, often someone is dead within days or two weeks,” Hillis said. “And so suddenly there is this anticipated shock without enough time to prepare families.”

Two incomes for one

Valérie and Robert Villegas were just starting to make plans in case one of them died when COVID-19 took Robert at 45. They were never able to make a will. They didn’t have life insurance.

Robert Villegas, truck driver, provided half of the household’s income. Her death created a huge financial gap for the family, which widened when Valerie took three months of unpaid leave from work to care for her children. Her husband had worked days and she worked nights, which meant they could not watch the children.

Unemployment thanks to federal pandemic relief programs and Social Security survivor benefits helped keep the family afloat, but money was tight, almost impossible, as Valerie Villegas tried to babysit six children , aged 1 to 18, fed and clothed, and housework on the move. Day care for her two youngest children alone costs $ 1,800 per month; even when she was eligible for a state grant, she still paid over $ 700 per month.

“My kids never knew what it was like to turn off the lights or the water,” Villegas said. “And they experienced it several times last year.”

In the spring, she returned to work at the hospice after obtaining the position of director of nurses, an administrative role with a higher salary. She is at least able to say more about the bills, but there is little money left. There won’t be as many Christmas presents under the tree this year, she said.

While the family’s finances have stabilized, the children of Villegas are still grappling with the loss of their father. Her 4-year-old son has temper tantrums, usually after hearing someone talk about his father.

“He’s just starting to realize that (his father) is not coming back,” Villegas said. “He’s just going to get mad and start crying out of nowhere.”

Health care access

Not surprisingly, research shows that children who lose a parent have higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But accessing therapy to address these issues has been difficult, with waiting lists for many mental health providers stretching for months.

Tiffany Sanders, 46, de Pearland, has dealt with these issues since her husband, Stephen, a consultant for oil and gas companies, died of COVID last November after contracting it while on a business trip. The family was taken aback. Stephen, 41, had no underlying health issues and wore a mask regularly.

He was close to his daughters, now 13 and 15, often taking them to the movies or restaurants. Sanders said her 13-year-old daughter was particularly struggling to cope with the loss of her father.

“It’s been a struggle to get her to a place where she can still keep her father alive in her heart and honor him by living the best life possible,” Sanders said. “She still finds it hard to accept having any kind of joy in her life.”

Sanders sought advice for his two teenage daughters, but it took him three months to get even a virtual date. Her 13-year-old daughter waited almost 10 months to see a therapist in person.

Stephen Sanders was the sole breadwinner; Tiffany became a stay-at-home mom after their first child. For now, she can support the family through payment from her husband’s life insurance policy and Social Security survivor benefits.

She plans to return to work eventually, but worries about what kind of job she might find, or even if she is still employable after being out of the workforce for 15 years. Before having children, she worked in international relocations, helping oil and gas companies move their employees to operations in other countries.

“I’ll have to go back to work. My husband left me some money, but I’m only 46 and it’s not going to last, ”Sanders said. “But I’m not trying to think that far. I can barely make it a day.

Try to move forward

Jennifer Arce Garza knows what it feels like to be overwhelmed by shock, grief and uncertainty. Her husband, Kyle, was just 38 when he contracted COVID-19 in September of last year. Arce Garza thought, hoped he would be better. She never imagined that the last time she would see him would be via a Zoom call while he was connected to a ventilator.

“I know no one lives forever, but I never imagined becoming a widow in my thirties,” said Arce Garza. “We didn’t make any wills or planning. It took us by surprise.

Her husband, who worked in sales, earned 70 percent of the household income. Arce Garza, the after-school program coordinator for the Pasadena Independent School District, was worried about how she would cover the cost of the funeral, let alone other household bills.

She and her son also contracted milder cases of COVID while her husband was hospitalized. Forced by grief and exhausted by the virus, she spent days in bed. Her son came to her room to remind her to eat.

“He was obviously very worried about me, especially after losing his father,” said Arce Garza. “I’m sure he was just like, ‘I can’t lose my mom too.'”

Family and friends gathered around her, creating a GoFundMe campaign and organizing fundraisers to help cover funeral and other expenses. She also makes a will to make sure her son will be taken care of if anything happens to him.

Her son has shown resilience. He does well in school, but still doesn’t like to talk about his father. Arce Garza fears that the trauma of the loss will surface more deeply in the years to come.

“He’s still young,” said Arce Garza. “I won’t know what long-term effects this will have until he’s older.”

When children lose their parents, it affects them throughout their lives, Hillis said. They are more likely to have mental health problems, low self-esteem and higher risk of suicide. But there is still hope, Hillis added.

“With the love, affection and support from the remaining parent or family, or from foster and adoptive families, there is a lot of hope,” she said, “provided these kids get the help they need when they need it. “

rebecca.carballo@chron.com

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