Santa Clara County to support kids who lost parents to COVID-19
Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg is pictured in this file photo.

Santa Clara County will offer additional support to children who lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved creating a program to identify and support county youth who lost parents or guardians to the virus. The board also directed county officials to come up with options to expand wellness centers on school campuses and increase the supply of early childhood education and childcare workers.

Roughly one out of every 450 children in the U.S. have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. As of Tuesday, 2,082 people have died of COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began, according to government data. In California, an estimated 26,891 children have lost a parent to COVID-19.

“We believe the county has a particular obligation to address the recovery needs of children, who may face life-long challenges due to the loss of a parent or primary caregiver,” said Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who introduced the referral with Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

Details about how the various initiatives can be implemented will be heard later this spring. Last November, the board approved $30 million in federal relief dollars to address the needs of children and school-based behavioral health services. The referral notes the relief money, plus other federal, state and local funding sources, may be considered for the proposed ideas.

Chavez asked county officials to also consider transitional youth between the ages of 18-21. She noted some are still developing and could benefit from extra support.

“I just wanted to make sure as we think about this, we’re really focused on children who have suffered such a great loss,” Chavez said.

Several mental health and youth advocates applauded supervisors for considering protections for families devastated by COVID, and where children are experiencing severe mental health issues such as depression and suicidal ideation.

“Unfortunately, we have worked with many families who have lost a loved one and are in need of support,” said Patricia Alonso, a manager at the Healthier Kids Foundation. She noted many families in the county contain at least one parent born outside the U.S., and language barriers create problems for accessing services.

Other advocates expressed relief the board is moving toward rebuilding the early childhood education and caregiving industry, which was hit hard by the pandemic.

“With universal pre-(kindergarten) mandates coming down from the state, our county has an opportunity to bolster this important sector,” said Dr. Heidi Emberling, deputy chief of early learning for FIRST 5 Santa Clara County, a youth advocacy organization.

Supervisors are also asking the county to expand wellness centers on school campuses. The Santa Clara County Office of Education operates 12 centers across 10 school districts, and in 2020 received a state grant to add more centers.

“Having access to wellness centers on campus increases, by 21 times, the likelihood that students will receive access to mental health services,” Dr. Chaunise Powell, director of youth health and wellness at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, told San José Spotlight. “It also significantly reduces the stigma associated with seeking mental health services and increases attendance, the likelihood of graduation and decreases the likelihood of dropout.”

Desperate for services

Advocates say it’s been difficult to keep up with the demand for mental health services, and those needs are more acute for families that have lost parents or caregivers.

“If you’ve got a youth struggling with depression or anxiety, and you layer that on top of losing their primary support, the person they love, that’s just devastating,” Don Taylor, Bay Area executive director of Uplift Family Services, told San José Spotlight. “It takes a long time to heal from that.”

Uplift Family Services is the largest behavioral health provider for minors in Santa Clara County. Taylor said his agency helps families who have lost providers connect with vital resources, such as financial assistance to cover the cost of funerals. He said accessing services can be difficult for families in the wake of a death.

Kathleen King, chief executive officer of the Healthier Kids Foundation, told San José Spotlight her organization screens hundreds of fifth graders for various health care issues—including mental health—in high-need school districts such as Alum Rock Union School District and Franklin-McKinley School District.

She said recent data shows about 2-3% of children are dealing with severe mental health issues such as suicidal ideation. About 46% of children screened have borderline needs, which she said are still serious.

“It’s pretty drastic out there for kids,” King said, noting that on top of mental health needs, her organization has tracked an alarming increase in the number of children in need of dental work, such as filling cavities.

Supervisors also want to increase the county’s supply of early childhood education and childcare workers. In 2020, the county approved $2.5 million to fund childcare programs in the county using federal relief dollars.

Despite this aid, the childcare industry was devastated by the pandemic—according to county data from December of last year, 12.5% of providers in the county closed over the last 18 months. This reduced the total number of licensed early learning and childcare workers by 10% and left roughly 7,000 kids without childcare.

“We’re finding now that it’s a particularly hard challenge that falls on women mostly, for moms to get back to work if they don’t have adequate, affordable childcare options,” Ellenberg said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Kathleen King is a member of San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

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