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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Low-income COVID-19 orphans in California to receive financial assistance

Orphans by COVID-19

By Isabel Aguilera. CalMatters. Bay City News

In California, 32,000 children under the age of 18 have experienced the death of a parent or primary caregiver due to COVID-19. In response, the state has set aside $100 million in trust funds so that children from low-income families will have access to school, housing or other expenses when they turn 18.

In a small town in California's Central Valley, a trio of siblings lost their parents to COVID-19 two weeks apart in 2021. Their deaths turned the oldest son into a pseudo-parent to his teenage siblings overnight and forced the brothers and sister to discover a future without their mom and dad.  

In California, 32,000 children under the age of 18 have had a parent or primary caregiver die from COVID-19, according to research by the Global Reference Group for Children Affected by the disease.

These children, the so-called "COVID orphans," are likely to face not only financial hardship, but also a lifetime of mental health, educational, relational and emotional challenges, researchers say.

Now, California has become the first state to create a financial safety net for some COVID orphans as they reach adulthood. The state has allocated $100 million in its recently adopted budget for the Children's Hope, Opportunity, Perseverance and Empowerment Trust Account Fund, which will generate trust funds for low-income children who lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19. 

Long-term foster youth trust funds will also be created.    

The funds, known as "baby bonds," would be started with state money and allowed to grow until the child turned 18. At that point, the youth could access the fund for housing, education or other expenses.

"It will make it so that the people most in need, who have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID, have a little extra help," said Emily Walton, policy director for COVID Survivors for Change, a national organization advocating for benefits for Americans affected by COVID-19. 

"The lack of several thousand dollars could prevent a child from jumping to the next thing and getting an education or getting a job in a place where they know they can succeed."

Details of the plan will be presented later this summer in one of several advance bills, which add details to the state budget. Advocates say eligibility will likely be tied to enrollment in Medi-Cal, the state's health insurance system for low-income Californians. The amounts deposited are expected to reflect the age of the child and how far away that person is from turning 18.

In the Central Valley farming town of Coalinga, Martin, Angel and Miranda Basulto felt lost after their parents died in January 2021.

His father, Martin Basulto, a truck driver, thought he was exposed to COVID-19 at work. His mother, Rosa Garcia Cortez, who worked as a receptionist at a local hotel, became ill after caring for his father. Basulto, 44, and Garcia Cortez, 46, were taken to a local hospital and within weeks both were dead.

Overnight, Martin, now 27, was in charge of his family. He returned home from Fresno to take on responsibilities like paying the mortgage and making sure his sister Miranda got to high school on time.

"At first, I didn't care about school. I was really mad," 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 to make it in life?"

But then someone asked him if he wanted to die without living up to his full potential.

"That impacted me because I know my parents wanted to do a lot of things in their life that they couldn't do," she said. "So, I want to live my life to the fullest of my potential."

She is now on the honor roll and looks forward to college, a dream her father had for her.

Baby ties are critical to his family, Martin said. He remembers his parents helping him with groceries or stepping in when he couldn't pay his own phone bill when he first moved in.

Now it is your turn.

"The smallest amount can go a long way," Martin referred. "I want her to be prepared for when she goes to college and I will help her in any way I can, so any other help available is greatly appreciated."

Latino children represent the majority, 66 percent, of COVID orphans in California. Many of them are sons and daughters of essential workers who were already facing economic uncertainty before the pandemic.

Nationwide, non-white children lost parents or caregivers at four times the rate of their white peers, according to a report titled "Hidden Grief, Children Who Lost a Parent or Caregiver to COVID-19 and What the Nation Can Do to Help," released in December by The COVID Collaborative. 

Nationally, 250,000 children were orphaned by the death of at least one parent or primary caregiver through 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 Mourning Sun Children's Foundation, an Apple Valley-based support organization for youth and their families who are grieving the death or loss of a loved one through abandonment, incarceration or other separation. 

Cales said that for COVID-19 survivors, grief was intensified because many were unable to meet or mourn their loss with others. The ongoing pandemic is prolonging the grief, he stressed.

"They really feel more alone and isolated," he sentenced. "Not only have they lost their person, but they seem to be struggling with the inability to be able to connect or find services that meet their particular needs of loss and grief because of the pandemic."

California's new COVID orphan program is part of a broader, long-standing effort to provide trust funds for all low-income children who qualify for Medi-Cal, regardless of COVID's impact on their families, said Shamika Gaskins, president and CEO of Grace and Child. California Poverty, which advocated for the money.

"This is really part of our long-term vision to end child poverty in California by closing the racial wealth gap and providing opportunity for our most vulnerable children," Gaskins noted.

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 qualification for the Medicaid program in each of those states.

Connecticut and Washington, D.C., approved infant voucher programs last year. Connecticut's program begins in July 2023 and includes deposits of up to $3,200 per child. The DC program began with babies born in October 2021 and funding starts at $500 plus annual deposits as long as the family's income qualifies.

 California's new program is the first in the nation to provide trust funds for COVID orphans and long-term foster youth. Walton, of COVID Survivors for Change, said the organization is working with a handful of states to consider similar scholarships or trust funds for children who have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19.

As a teacher in Marin County, Kate McLaughlin does not believe her daughter, Eala, qualifies for the trust fund, but she is confident that, if her daughter needed the support in the future, she would be able to access it. Her husband, Jason McLaughlin, died from the pandemic virus last year when their daughter was 3 years old. He was 48.

"Our people are not just a number," he noted about those killed by COVID-19. "I want people to know that Jason McLaughlin was a great guy and an amazing father and that he was on this planet and his life mattered."

A kidney transplant survivor, Jason was immunocompromised.

The family huddled together when the pandemic began. Kate believes Jason was exposed on one of his quick runs to 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 a few days.

"I was able to be with him in his last moments," Kate said. "The biggest challenge for us is adjusting to the gigantic loss in our lives."

When Jason's hometown Boston Celtics recently played the Warriors in the playoffs, Kate felt a wave of angst. She was looking forward to watching the games with her daughter.

"She would love it. I should be here to watch this game, to watch it with her," Kate stressed. "Dealing with those constant reminders that she's gone is terrible."

A study published in the medical journal Pediatrics in October found that orphanhood is a secondary tragedy caused by the pandemic. Researchers say children's lives are forever changed by the loss of a parent or caregiver and addressing it should be a priority. It is considered an adverse childhood experience that is linked to mental health problems, low self-esteem, suicide and other problems later in life.

The California trust funds began as a bill introduced by Democratic Senator Nancy Skinner of Berkeley that was sailing through the Legislature. In May, Skinner withdrew the bill because funding for COVID orphans would be included in the budget proposal.

"At a time when California has immense wealth, we can make sure that children who have suffered an unconscionable loss can take comfort in knowing that they will have a little help at a time when they no longer have parents to rely on," Skinner said. said. said.

In Bakersfield, Hillary Porter closely follows the progress of the trust fund program. She is one of the parent survivors who advocated for the program.

In March 2020, Hillary, her husband Lloyd Porter and daughter MacLemore were packing up their home in New York City to return to California.  

Then Lloyd, an actor, became ill with COVID-19. Six weeks later he died.

"He really fought the good fight. Somehow he pulled through," Hillary explained. "I was in the process of planning rehab for him and all of a sudden he was gone."

Hillary and her daughter stayed the course and returned 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 officers of student organizations of African descent.

Lloyd was the type of person who would literally take off his sweatshirt and give it to a young man arriving in San Francisco without realizing how cold it would be, his wife said.

"Because my husband passed away in May 2020, we couldn't have a funeral, we couldn't get together with friends or family. It was like we were in a bubble," she stressed. "That adds another layer of trauma or grief."

She is seeking the trust fund to help children with mental health support and college.

"Kids, when they're becoming adults, now they can dream a little bit more," Hilary referred. "It could change the trajectory of their goals at 18."

Find the original story by giving click here.

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