For 16-year old-Tobias, remote school during the pandemic meant more time at home in Parramore with his mother, who suffers from acute mental illness. One day, the fighting between them escalated to the point where she threatened to kill the teen. Tobias has begun to self-medicate with marijuana.
James’ dad was barely holding it together before COVID. But when he lost his job due to pandemic-related cutbacks, he became physically abusive, causing his wife to flee to the Coalition for the Homeless with James, 10, and his two younger siblings. Since then, James has been acting aggressively to his peers.
Physical and verbal abuse. Homelessness. A parent in prison. Divorce. The Centers for Disease Control categorizes these and other harmful events as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). The CDC has shown that there is a direct line between a childhood marked by several ACEs and an adulthood of illness, drug abuse, unemployment and often, suicide.
For many children raised in underserved families, like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida members described above, COVID has been an ACE-generating machine. Couple this with the profound learning loss that has disproportionately affected low-income children during COVID, and the pandemic’s greatest toll is likely yet to be realized.
This is why it’s critically important that we prioritize children in how we choose to spend the federal funds, provided through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and other programs, that are practically gushing into Central Florida counties and cities for the purpose of undoing some of the damage wrought by the pandemic.
Through the ARP alone, the largest local distributions include Orange County at $270 million; Seminole County $91 million; Osceola County $71 million; and the City of Orlando $58 million. While the legislation gives great latitude to the governing authorities on how to spend the funds, it suggests prioritizing “evidence-based educational services and practices to address the academic needs of students, including tutoring, summer, afterschool, and other extended learning and enrichment programs; and evidence-based practices to address the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students.”
Marvin and Michael, ages 8 and 10, moved from their home in Carver Shores to a motel when their mother lost her job at IHOP at the start of the pandemic. Until COVID, Marcia had been a consistent caregiver, but now the boys were coming to their Boys & Girls Club hungry, and inhaling their food at mealtime, Marvin to the point of vomiting. Recently, staff was alarmed when Marcia arrived to pick the boys up, frantic and under the influence. They called in social services, who arranged for the children to go home with another family member.
As a pediatrician and chairman of Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida, I would strongly urge Orange County, the City of Orlando, and other local counties and cities to designate a meaningful portion of the ARP funds to supporting nonprofits that directly benefit the children in our community who were most affected by the pandemic, like those described above. For underserved children living on the margin, Boys & Girls Clubs, Parramore Kids Zone, Orlando Day Nursery and other child-care programs are often the only place they can find emotional and physical safety, academic support, and the positive adult role models who are so critical to development.
The social reformer Frederick Douglass famously said “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” These words, spoken in 1885, could not be truer today.
In the short term, we must continue to fight the spread of the coronavirus with precautions and vaccinations. But in the long term, we must properly fund programs that address the underlying inequality of opportunity for underserved children. Their productive adulthoods, and our community’s future, are at stake.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment. It is aimed at presenting a perspective only and is not a substitute for a prescription. Anyone experiencing a medical condition should consult their doctor.