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How the pandemic has been devastating for children from low-income families

Since the coronavirus arrived in her southeastern Washington, DC neighborhood last spring, Grenderline Etheridge, 11, has burst into tears multiple times for reasons she cannot explain. She crawled into bed with her mother, which she hadn’t done for a very long time.

Her siblings also had problems: her brothers, who are 12 and 4, joined her in their mother’s room, and the little one, who had almost learned potty training before her school closed in March, recently returned to diapers.

Grenderline’s mother, Loretta Jones, has tried over the past 10 months to keep the kids focused on their studies and entertained with games, books and handprints. At the start of the pandemic, Ms Jones often drove the family to a nearby park for exercise, but they stopped going once cases of the virus started to rise again. A wave of gunfire this year in their neighborhood has also caused the family to stay mostly indoors, confined to their crowded three-bedroom apartment.

“By the grace of God we’re making it happen,” said Ms. Jones, 34, who suffers from bipolar disorder and has struggled to find stable work.

As the virus spread across the country and spared no community, it also inflamed the hardships many families were already enduring in the pre-pandemic era: gun violence, hunger, poverty.

The disruptions of daily life – and the stress associated with taking lives on hiatus – may have been felt the most by children in low-income families, said experts, many of whom live in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods that have been plagued by gun violence and disproportionately high rates of coronavirus infection.

The pandemic has caused so much upheaval in Grenderline’s life – and the lives of many young people – that experts fear the devastating effects will be felt long after the vaccines are distributed and some semblance of normalcy returns.

Since March, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a 24% nationwide spike in mental health emergency room visits among children aged 5 to 11, and an increase 31% among those aged 12 years. and 17, compared to the same period last year.

While most children should recover from isolation and distance learning, said experts in child development, those growing up amid other adversities such as domestic violence, child abuse and poverty have struggled to cope with the troubles of the pandemic – and face greater hurdles to recover.

“It’s not just the virus that’s the problem,” said Alicia Lieberman, director of the Child Trauma Research Program at the University of California at San Francisco, which works with about 400 children each year. from the Bay Area under 6 years of age who have suffered multiple forms of trauma.

Almost all of the children are black, Latino or mixed race, and since the pandemic struck, she said, the program has seen “huge increases” in sleep problems, nightmares and assault among young people, as well as enuresis. who had already grown up.

“There is no doubt that it is because they are already facing trauma,” she said, and the virus “is becoming another source of uncontrollable danger”.

The challenges many middle-class children face, such as frustrations with virtual classes, she said, contrast starkly with the struggles of children growing up in communities where systemic racism has deprived families of families. a living wage, safe housing, quality education and health care, said Cierra Hall-Hipkins, executive director of Network Connect, an organization advocating for young people in Delaware’s inner city. In Wilmington, Del., Gun violence is up almost 50% from last year.

“For African Americans in this country, it’s almost a birthright to be resilient,” said Ms. Hall-Hipkins, who is black. “We learned these skills, sometimes at 4 years old. Now it’s about survival. We are trying to teach our children to live. “

In Washington, the racial disparities of the pandemic can be felt most acutely in the city’s seventh and eighth wards, a swathe of low-income neighborhoods that are roughly 90 percent black and have the highest homicide rates. high in the city and among the most coronavirus deaths. Just a few miles from Capitol Hill, the Halls of Power that rise across the Anacostia River can feel a world away.

Although their building has a fenced back yard, Grenderline and his brothers are generally too scared to play there due to all the gunfire.

“Every time I go out they always start shooting,” Grenderline said of his neighborhood in the city’s eighth arrondissement. “When I go inside, they shoot. When I try to fall asleep, they still spin. “

In the district of Grenderline, several young people have been killed this year. Her father was shot and killed in 2015, when she was only 6 and her older brother was 7.

In the Seventh and Eighth Quarters, shootings are so common that many families living in ground-floor apartments strategically organize their furniture to minimize the risk of being hit by bullets that could pass through their windows, said Sanchita Sharma, psychologist in a clinic at the Ward 7 National Children’s Hospital.

Yet even she was shocked, she said, by a recent spike in gun violence and the emotional devastation it caused to her young patients.

“Over the past two months, the amount of trauma I have heard is actually overwhelming,” said Ms Sharma, recounting stories of children and adolescents shot dead taking out trash or walking towards a store.

Due to chronic trauma exposure, many of her patients suffered from post-traumatic stress or anxiety disorders, she said, with symptoms such as sleep problems and increased aggression, which have had an impact on their grades and family relationships.

KaShawna Watson, who oversees the school-based mental health program for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, the city’s largest independent social service provider, said months of virtual learning, protests against Police brutality and financial turmoil have taken their toll on young people in the seventh and eighth neighborhoods.

“They are worried about what will happen if they go out,” she said. “Are they going to get shot for being black?” Or is their father not going to come home?

While these general concerns are not new, she said, they have been made worse by the pandemic.

At least 20% of students in DC schools who are served by Catholic charities, which provide therapy, meals, and other services to hundreds of children in both neighborhoods, have lost a family member to cause of Covid-19, officials said. Self-harming behaviors such as FGC increased in children as early as grade one, they said, and hospitalizations resulting from calls to its youth helpline for mental health crises have skyrocketed.

The responsibility to help these children often falls on single mothers who are already struggling. And with 26% of residents living below the poverty line in Ward 7 and nearly 33% in Ward 8, they are often strapped for financial resources.

Tiffany Porter, who is 32 and lives in Ward 8, has long struggled to protect her five young children. His daughter’s father was shot dead in July 2019, a loss made worse by a shooting minutes after his funeral. “I have to be extremely strong for my kids and some days I can’t even be strong for myself,” she says.

As the first anniversary of her death approached in July, her 8-year-old daughter became depressed, Ms. Porter said, and started cutting herself a month later. Teletherapy helped, she said, but with schools closing and community centers shutting down, the limits seemed to be obstacles.

“I can’t get what I need because Covid is holding everyone back,” Ms. Porter said, stressing that she rarely lets her children play outside because of her fears of gun violence. “You can’t take your child to the playground without hearing the gunshots.”

Unable to find a job during the pandemic, Ms Porter said she relied on disability benefits to make ends meet. But surgery last year for one of his sons has left him as little as $ 23 some months and a mountain of unpaid bills. Christmas was “canceled” for her family, she said, because she could not afford presents.

Despite the difficulties, Ms. Porter worked to create structure in her family’s home. She set up desks for her children in the living room, and not far from a large white Christmas tree adorned with blue ornaments, she built a “calm down” corner, filled with picture books and a rocking chair. She plans story time and dance time, and helps her children read, do math, and do science.

Yet Ms Porter said she feared that even after the pandemic ended, her children would struggle to escape the cycle of poverty and community violence that marked their young lives.

“It’s my family standard,” she says. “It’s all we see, all we know.”

This article was produced as part of USC Annenberg Health journalism centerNational scholarship 2020 of.

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