Penn professor coauthored a report on the grieving children of the pandemic.
One of the few silver linings of the COVID pandemic, if there is such a thing, is that children have been largely spared the worst health effects of the virus. But that doesn’t mean young people aren’t affected by COVID deaths.
New data show that more than 215,000 American children have lost at least one parent or caregiver to the virus. And last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a “Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health,” citing “soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality” due in part to losing a primary and/or secondary caregiver.
Who will help young people struggling after such a profound loss?
Dan Treglia C’05 SWP’16, an associate professor of practice at Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, recently led a team of national policy experts who produced a report called “Hidden Pain: Children Who Lost a Parent or Caretaker to COVID-19 and What the Nation Can Do to Help Them.”
“One of the things that’s unique about caregiver loss over the last two years is that the infrastructure that’s usually there to help a child has been, at times, absent,” Treglia says. “A teacher who would see a child regularly might notice the child showing signs of depression, but that incidental finding was less likely to happen when schools were remote. Teachers are providing frontline services to their students, and we need to provide more support to them.”
Treglia was the lead social policy analyst on the 80-page “Hidden Pain” report, which was produced by the COVID Collaborative—a bipartisan group of leaders, medical professionals, and researchers studying the scope and long-term effects of the virus.
Treglia never intended to study grief or pandemics, but the Staten Island native got his first lesson in analyzing social problems as a Penn undergraduate when he took the class “Religion and Social Welfare” with John DiIulio [“John DiIulio Gets Religion,” Oct 1997]. After graduating in 2005, Treglia earned a master’s at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government and became deputy director of research and evaluation for New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, where he assessed how many thousands of people and families were homeless in New York City. He says he was shocked by the number of “invisible” homeless—those who survived in temporary lodging but weren’t always seen on the street or in a shelter.
Wanting to continue to study homelessness, Treglia returned to Penn, where he earned a doctorate in social welfare from the School of Social Policy & Practice and continued postdoctoral work.
When Treglia heard stirrings about COVID-19, he knew the homeless population would be especially vulnerable, since they live in congregate settings and interact with people on the street. “We estimated 3,500 people experiencing homelessness in America could die … if we did nothing,” Treglia says. But, he adds, “we don’t think it’s reached this number because we saw action from the federal government and key stakeholders,” which included moving people to non-congregate settings such as motel rooms.
It felt like a natural progression to examine how other vulnerable populations were dealing with their losses, and what came out of Treglia’s research were stories of children who didn’t know how to handle their grief.
On the COVID Collaborative website, a 15-year-old from Maryland who lost a mother is quoted as saying, “It is difficult to go to sleep at night when you’re thinking of that special person. It’s hard to get out of bed when you’re thinking of that person. It is just hard to do stuff when you’re thinking of that person.”
As the US COVID-19 death tally surpassed one million this spring, Treglia became a visible advocate about the need for schools to identify and help students who lost someone. According to the report, as of February 28, more than 91,000 children are missing a parent and more than 15,000 lost their only in-home caregiver to the virus, many coming from disadvantaged communities. In New York City, one in every 200 children lost a caregiver—with Black, Hispanic, and Asian children three times more likely to have experienced such a loss compared to their white peers.
“What surprised me the most,” Treglia says, “is how little attention this issue has gotten over the course of the pandemic. I think part of the reason our report was called ‘Hidden Pain’ is because our headlines are saturated with case numbers and death numbers. We, as a society, have not been paying enough attention to the consequences of those deaths, particularly for this group. Children looked to the parent or caregiver for love, comfort, emotional support, housing, food. Their whole world has come tumbling down. It’s important that we and others shed some light on that.”
This spring, members of the COVID Collaborative wrote an open letter to the Biden administration recommending that the president issue an executive order “charging your departments and agencies to shape a comprehensive response to support these children and families nationally.”
The report’s architects have suggested interventions such as peer support programs, weekend grief camps, “a federally funded mentorship program to ensure that COVID-bereaved children have access to caring adults,” family bereavement programs, and more funding to social service programs and agencies that help impoverished families.
Despite the politicization of the pandemic, Treglia stresses that the “Hidden Pain” report managed to cross partisan divides. “We have not seen pushback on our work,” he says. “We’ve been met by thanks that we’re shedding light on this problem, and there’s an urgency from community leaders, public officials, and others to address it.”
—Caren Lissner C’93