The coronavirus pandemic’s ongoing legacy: COVID orphans
After losing both parents, the Green family works to create a life for the children left behind
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – It’s a warm, sunny Sunday morning in May in this city near the Atlantic beaches and Katherine Jefferson and three of her grandchildren are seated near the front of the sanctuary at the All Nations Life Development Christian Center. They take Holy Communion, clap during the minister’s homilies and sing with the rest of the congregation. It all seems so normal.
But the path that brought Jefferson and Tayla, Tori and Troy Green Jr. to this morning was anything but normal. They are survivors and their story is emblematic of a national tragedy and yet full of the power of family, love and resiliency.
These three children are part of a large Detroit family whose mother and father died only hours apart after contracting COVID-19 nearly two years ago. Their maternal grandmother had died of COVID-19 a few months earlier and their 25-year-old first cousin was killed in a car crash weeks later.
Five months. Four caskets. Three funerals.
The coronavirus pandemic is the deadliest public-health crisis in U.S. history, killing more than 1.1 million people to date, including the parents of Tayla, Tori and Troy Jr. — 44-year-old Charletta and Troy Green Sr. — as well as Charletta Green’s mother, Tonya Harris-Chatman, 59.
Fewer than 1,700 children have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some advocates, researchers and doctors told Andscape that there is a misconception that children have been spared the worst of COVID-19 because relatively few of them have died from the disease. But the deaths of their caregivers have caused hundreds of thousands of children to lose their main source of financial, emotional and developmental support.
Although President Joe Biden mentioned the issue of COVID orphans in his 2023 State of the Union address, many local governments have no good count of how many children have lost a parent to the disease. The best analysis comes from a model developed by Imperial College London and the Global Reference Group on Children Affected by Covid-19, a consortium of researchers studying the crisis.
They estimate that in the first three years of the pandemic, around 311,000 minor children in the United States lost a parent or other in-home primary caregiver, such as a grandmother, to COVID-19. Roughly a quarter of those children – or about 76,000 – are Black. Only 14% of America’s youth are Black, illustrating the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black families.
“There is no demographic at more risk today, even three years out from the pandemic, in terms of impacting the future, than Black and brown children,” said Yolandra Hancock, a pediatrician and professor at George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health.
Hancock is a co-founding member of the Black Coalition Against COVID. In March, the group released a report showing that Black youth were hospitalized more often and died at higher rates from the virus than white children. It also noted that over the first 14 months of the pandemic that Black children lost a parent or caregiver at more than twice the rate of white children.
Many parents who died from COVID-19 were, like the Greens, frontline workers. Charletta Green worked in child care at a local YMCA. In Michigan, day care centers remained open when a lot of other businesses shut down or allowed their employees to work from home. Troy Green, who was on disability leave when he contracted COVID-19, had worked with children at a rehab center.
“When the country was shutting down, the frontline essential workers who were keeping the hospitals running, keeping the subways running, keeping the grocery stores running were disproportionately Black and brown families,” said Chris Kocher, founder of the support group COVID Survivors for Change. “One of the things keeping me up at night is just thinking about these families who lost parents who had no choice but to go to work for whatever reason and who are not getting the support that they need, the support that they deserve, even the recognition.”
Charletta and Troy Green Sr. left behind seven children in all, six girls and one boy. The four oldest children were over 18 and legally adults when their parents died.
It was up to a court to decide what would happen to the three minors. They could stay in Detroit with their oldest sister, Tylisa, who was 23 at the time, or they could move to Florida to live with their paternal grandmother.
After nearly a year of court hearings held via Zoom because of the pandemic, Jefferson was awarded sole custody. That meant that Tayla, then 16, Tori, 13, and Troy Jr., 11, said goodbye to their older sisters and came to Port St. Lucie to begin their new life in a new community, new school and new church, which is where I met with them after they’d been in Florida for nearly a year.
Charletta and Troy Green were sweethearts as teenagers, and traced their relationship back to a prank phone call made in the early 1990s. According to family lore, Charletta had randomly dialed the home where Troy lived with his parents and four siblings. She and Troy hit it off and continued to talk on the phone for a year, after which she and her sister caught a bus to his house, kicking off a relationship that led to marriage in 1999 and then seven children.
As teens, they even began dressing alike. “Charletta used to wear the same exact clothing that my brother would wear,” Troy Green’s sister Tiki said. “If he had on a plaid shirt with blue jeans, she had on a plaid shirt with blue jeans.”
Troy Green left his family’s church in Detroit to worship at Mt. Sion Missionary Baptist Church, where Harris-Chatman was the choir director and his wife was known for being an outstanding singer.
By 2007, the couple had five girls: Tylisa, Tatianna, Trinity, Tamya and Tayla. The family was fortunate to have Charletta Green’s mom, Harris-Chatman, around to help with the kids. At times, she even lived with her daughter’s family in their four-bedroom home on Detroit’s east side, Tiki Green said.
Troy Green was a man of deep faith and became a deacon at Mt. Sion. Every first Sunday, he would take the microphone at church and sing one of his favorite songs, “I Know It Was the Blood,” during Holy Communion. “He was like 6-foot-3, a big guy,” his mom said. “Everyone would call him Luther Vandross, because they favored.”
Charletta Green loved to sing for and with each of her girls, as well as in the church, and won some local talent shows. Her biggest win came in 2007, when she took first place in the Warren Idol show in the nearby city of Warren, in front of more than 500 people. A video of the performance, provided to Andscape by TV Warren, shows the range in her voice.
A year later, their sixth child, Tori Rihanna, was born.
Troy Green, perhaps not surprisingly, wanted a son, too. His wish came true two days after Christmas in 2010, when Troy Green Jr. was born. He would later tell his son that he ran up and down the street jumping for joy.
The Greens built their lives around family, meeting regularly at Jefferson’s home in Detroit, where cookouts and game nights were often followed by Jefferson coaxing her daughter-in-law to sing. In 2015, Jefferson and her second husband, Demetri Jefferson, moved to Florida. The shindigs moved to the Greens’ home – for the simple fact that they had the most kids, so it was easier for everyone else to go to them.
At some point, Troy and Charletta Green were both diagnosed with diabetes. Even though it was an aggravating condition for COVID-19, when vaccines became available, the couple decided against getting the shots. That was still their position in late May 2021, when Harris-Chatman contracted COVID-19 and died. The couple and all seven kids sang at the funeral. That’s when Charletta Green began to tell her kids that if anything happened to her and her husband, she didn’t want them to be separated.
“She always instilled in their head, ‘No matter what, if anything happens to us, you guys stay together,’ ” Tiki Green said. “The problem with that is nobody expects to pass on. You tell your children this, but you’re expecting to be there.”
After Harris-Chatman’s death, the family planned a trip to Universal Studios and other attractions in Orlando to help the children take their minds off losing their grandmother. The trip was a big financial commitment because there were so many of them, but it’s what Charletta and Troy Green wanted.
On Aug. 12, 2022, the day they were set to leave, Troy wasn’t feeling well. His wife, the kids and her sister Carla went without him and he planned to join them once he was feeling better. But things quickly got worse, not only for him, but for his wife, too.
On Day Two of the trip, Charletta was admitted to AdventHealth Celebration hospital near Orlando with breathing trouble. She tested positive for COVID-19. Five of the children, including the oldest, Tylisa, returned to Detroit to be with their father. The next day, Aug. 14, Tylisa Green called emergency medical services to take him to DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital. Troy Green, too, tested for positive for COVID-19 and like his wife, was put on a ventilator. That day was the couple’s 22nd wedding anniversary. They were in intensive care units 1,100 miles apart.
After more than three weeks in the hospital, Charletta Green died on Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day. Troy Green had been improving but relapsed when he learned of his wife’s death. The doctors called his mother to help persuade him to go back on the ventilator. His heart flatlined while she was on the phone.
Their deaths were only eight hours apart.
Six weeks later, the family had another tragedy. Tiki Green’s oldest child, Asha Dumas, 25, died in a car crash after leaving the Green family house. She left behind a 3-year-old daughter, Nylah Fitzpatrick, who Tiki Green is now raising.
The Green family’s losses were part of a trend happening in Black and Latino communities all over the country in the first year and a half of the pandemic. But thanks to public education campaigns from groups such as the Black Coalition Against COVID, Black deaths began to recede, while white deaths began to tick up.
Even as the numbers piled up, many of the nation’s support networks for children had little data on who needed help.
In Detroit, for instance, where the Green children attended school before moving to Florida, the school district said it does not track information on students orphaned by COVID-19. “We do use an at-risk survey each year to identify students who require mental health support and one of our questions relate to loss of a loved one,” according to a statement provided to Andscape.
Andscape reached out to several other urban school districts, including New York City and Atlanta. Atlanta said it doesn’t keep data on children who have lost a parent. The New York City system provided a statement that said that the district has “bolstered efforts to support and nurture student well-being and mental health with necessary resources.” It cited programs such as staff training, in-school crisis teams, partnerships with child-welfare agencies, and the involvement of the New York Life Foundation, which funds mental-health agencies and provides in-person and virtual grief counseling.
“In the United States, when a parent or guardian passes, there is no way for anyone to know that there are children remaining in the home,” said Catherine Jaynes, a senior director at the COVID Collaborative, a coalition of experts on education, health and the economy. “And so with the support of New York Life, we’re working in Utah right now and trying to develop a systematic way so that when somebody passes the system knows that there are children remaining in the home and that they may need financial resources.”
Researchers, advocates and health professionals say that most children who lose parents end up being cared for by other relatives in an arrangement known as “grandfamilies.” A report from the advocacy group Generations United said there are 2.7 million children in grandfamilies in the United States, most headed by grandparents but also including other relatives. Twenty-five percent of children in grandfamilies are Black. Only about 133,000 of these families are part of the formal foster-care system, the report said.
“COVID-19 has really highlighted the important role that grandparents and other relatives play in these children’s lives,” Jaia Peterson Lent, the deputy executive director of Generations United, said. “And we know that African American and Black families have a long-held, strength-based cultural tradition of extended family caring for other family during difficult times. COVID-19 is one of those realities.”
In Nevada, officials at the Foster Kinship organization in Las Vegas said they have about 700 families using their Kinship Navigator Program each month, compared with 350 to 400 before the beginning of the pandemic. The program provides services to grandparents and other relatives raising children who are orphaned or have parents who are no longer able to care for their kids.
“We’ve seen a huge increased in children living in kinship care due to COVID,” said Leah Dods, Foster Kinship’s director of programs. “We break records every single month.”
Dods said that some kinship caregivers also have died from COVID-19 and that those children “have to go with another relative or, unfortunately, go into foster care.”
The three youngest Green children are adjusting to life in Florida, each in their own way. Troy Jr., for instance, got a PlayStation from his grandparents for Christmas and his sisters say that’s helped immensely.
Tori, 15, and in the ninth grade this past school year, has asked everyone to call her by her middle name – Rihanna – as she embarks on her new start. “When she came here she wanted us to call her by her middle name because I think she just wanted to leave her other life and start fresh with us,” her grandmother said.
Rihanna said she likes Port St. Lucie better than Detroit, and said she’s had a better attitude since arriving in her new environment. She said she harbored some anger after all that had happened to her and her family in 2021. She was missing the supervision of her mom and dad and knew her older siblings couldn’t quite tell her what to do.
“I got in lot of trouble back in Detroit,” she told me, mostly addressing people, including adults, disrespectfully. She found friends in Florida at school and church who have helped her be more positive, she said. “I’m hanging around a way better crowd than I did in Detroit.
“It’s been some hard times, but I feel like the longer we stay here, I’m coping with everything way better,” Rihanna said.
The girls say what they miss most about Michigan is seeing their sisters every day. Spending Thanksgiving in Detroit in 2022 was the only time the kids have been able to reunite since the three youngest moved to Florida.
The more time passes, the less the children have long conversations about their parents. Rihanna and Tayla talk about them occasionally. Memories of their parents tend to come up for him, Troy Jr. said, when everyone is riding somewhere in the car. Rihanna recalled how her mom used to sing as she cleaned the house. She said her dad, despite being a large man who could seem intimidating, “was the sweetest person ever.”
Tayla, who was a high school junior this year, said she looks at photos and video of her mom and dad on her phone when she’s alone and misses them most. “I got a lot of videos and pictures of them and like to hear their voices,” she said.
In Michigan, the family had a lot of love but not a lot of money. The children’s new home is in a middle-class, gated community with its own tennis courts, swimming pool and exercise facility. When I went to their development, I had to check in with the 24-hour security guard service.
Port St. Lucie, with its warm weather, palm trees, and 205,000 residents, has a different vibe from Detroit. U.S. News & World Report ranked Port St. Lucie as America’s second-safest city. A study last year by WalletHub ranked Detroit as America’s “neediest city.”
“I like Florida better than Michigan because, where we’re at now, it’s a lot safer,” said Tayla, who turned 17 in April. “Where we were at in Michigan, it wasn’t really safe.”
The kids joined All Nations, their grandparents’ church, over nine or 10 months. Troy Jr. is now part of the youth choir and is learning to play the drums, something he had started at his church in Detroit.
“That was my hobby that I really clung on to,” he said. He said he also plays basketball with other kids and his grandfather Demetri.
Tayla and Rihanna are on the praise and dance teams at All Nations church and like the fact that the church offers a variety of youth programs and has more kids than the one they attended in Detroit.
“When they first came, they were reserved, quiet, and a little bit sullen for kids their age,” Pastor Sheila Blake told me. “They were solemn, not sure where to fit. But the grandparents consistently brought them to church their first summer. So they acclimated into all the activities.”
On the first Sunday in May, I showed up for services at All Nations.
I met Grandad Demetri in the parking lot. We both have bald heads, so we’re not hard to spot.
Demetri Jefferson had on a tuxedo, which was the uniform on this day for the men’s choir. He escorted me into the building and said he wife and the children were on their way. He works for the Comcast Corp. and it was his job that brought him and his wife to Florida from Michigan nearly eight years earlier.
Inside the church, Demetri Jefferson headed for choir duty at the altar. Margaret Brown, the lead usher in a standard white uniform, showed me where I could sit in the plush purple sanctuary chairs and have a good view of Jefferson and the children once they had arrived.
Midway through the first song from the men’s choir, I noticed that Jefferson, Tayla, Rihanna and Troy Jr. had taken up residence in the fifth row. Pastor Adam Levarity gave a fiery sermon on the Book of Exodus, chapter 30, about Moses making an altar to burn some sweet incense. He preached about the difference between the holy place and the most holy place.
At one point, he said that “no one is ever prepared for gun violence, a car crash, COVID.”
After the first service there was a break for refreshments. The second service was much like the first except for two things. Early on during Holy Communion, someone began singing the late Troy Green Sr.’s favorite song, “I Know It Was the Blood.”
I was now seated with the family, in between the Jeffersons to my left and Tayla, Rihanna and Troy Jr. to my right. Jefferson’s eyes teared up and she would later say a chill went through her body.
After that, she was called up to the pulpit to say a few words. She talked about the COVID-19 deaths of her son and daughter-in-law and the deaths of Harris-Chatman and Dumas. She said that the couple didn’t die “in vain” because media across the world had run stories about them. She noted that a reporter was at the church on this day and said that would further extend Troy and Charletta Green’s legacy and touch people.
In her nervousness, she forgot to mention the three children. But they seemed OK with that. When their grandmother was done speaking, Tayla, Rihanna and Troy, like all the rest of the church, clapped politely.
After five hours of worship, I followed Jefferson and the children back to the family’s home. I noticed my phone was dying and I didn’t know where my charger was in my luggage.
Once inside, each of the children made a quick left into the section of the house that contained their bedrooms. Their grandmother said that was typical: That’s where they had their phones, computers and video games. Jefferson and I walked into the kitchen where Demetri Jefferson joined us. Tayla appeared only to give me a phone charger and retreated to her room.
For about a half hour, we sat at an island in the kitchen and chatted as we went through family photos. All of them had been through a lot. But there was a reassuring normalcy to this place and this day. The Green kids were doing all right.