Children who lost their parents in the pandemic are fighting to hold on to what is left of their families.
For the Fryson brothers, the year had begun on a hopeful note. They had finally reunited with their mother, Beatrice McMillian, after years of being in foster care.
McMillian had secured rental assistance for an apartment so she could move out of a homeless shelter. The older brother, Kasaun, was embarking on adulthood, working at Whole Foods and attending community college.
The younger brother, EJ, was living with his mother and doing well in high school. Then, in April, McMillian died of Covid-19. Her death shattered everything the family had gained. Fryson, 22, headed to court to try to become his 16-year-old brother's guardian and keep him from returning to foster care. "He needs someone, and I'm going to be that person," Fryson said.
When the coronavirus pandemic killed thousands of people in New York City, it made orphans of an unknown number of children. At least eight children have been placed in foster care because their parents died from the virus, according to the city Administration for Children's Services.
The total number is likely higher. Children in families with more money or wider support systems usually handle guardianship issues privately.
The sudden loss has thrust some young adults like Fryson into the unexpected role of surrogate parent, fighting to keep what is left of their families together.
"Your physical home is gone, your emotional home is gone. Then, you're going to be put with someone you've never known in your life," said Karen J. Freedman, the founder and executive director of Lawyers for Children, which represents children in foster care, including some whose parents died in the pandemic. "That is a terrifying process for any child."
'I had to be the responsible one'
Jessica Barrera, 16, faced the prospect of losing her home this spring. Her father died of tuberculosis in March, just as the virus was erupting in New York. Jessica's mother, Maria Arizaga, who worked in a bakery, was worried about how to care for Jessica and her older brother, Luis.
Her parents had emigrated from Ecuador, and did not have close family in Brooklyn, where they lived.
At the funeral, Arizaga turned to a family friend, Cesar Cevillo, and remarked that her children would now belong to him. It was the kind of brief, emotional remark that a grieving person might whisper in the moment, and Cevillo politely nodded.
Only weeks later, Arizaga died of Covid-19. Her son, Luis, began desperately looking for an adult to be a guardian to Jessica so that she would not be placed in foster care. At 19, he was about two years too young to be considered for the role.
"The last time I spoke to my mom on the phone, she said, 'If anything happens to me, just take care of your sister, OK?'" Barrera said. "I had to be the responsible one for my sister."
He turned to Cevillo, who had just recovered from the coronavirus himself. Cevillo then asked his sister, Laura, to help.
Laura Cevillo, who has her own teenage daughter, said she had to establish remote learning for Jessica, take her to the doctor and make sure she was eating — tasks that Luis, who worked at a supermarket and attended college, could not handle on his own. He also had to plan a trip to Ecuador, where he and his sister took their parents' ashes in July.
Cevillo said it had not been easy trying to comfort and care for teenagers who have lost two parents within weeks of each other, but she said she did not want to give up. "I was sad because these children were alone," she said.
A judge granted temporary guardianship, which will likely be extended at a hearing Friday. But the judge will have to ultimately decide who will be Jessica's permanent guardian.
A sister takes charge
David Villar, 17, feared he was headed to foster care after his father died of Covid-19 in March, just two years after his mother died of a heart attack at home, where he had tried to save her with cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
But he is now with his sister, Giannie Done, who has been given guardianship. Done, 21, said she felt obligated to care for her brother. "He didn't have anybody. I wanted him to know I'm his sister, and I'm here for him," she said.
Done, who works as a sales representative at AT&T, said she is learning how to be a guardian, but knows she is not a mother to David. "He's not a child; he's my little brother," she said. "I just want him to respect me."
David had been adopted out of foster care and briefly returned when his father went through another illness. He assumed he was going back again. "I didn't know where I would go to," he said, adding that he was grateful to his sister.
"Now, it's official," he said, laughing about the paperwork that awarded Done guardianship.
Trying to stay together
Like Done, Fryson was determined to prevent his brother, EJ, from having to return to foster care.
The brothers went into the care of the state in 2013, after their father died of prostate cancer. Their mother, McMillian, was in prison, serving a sentence for manslaughter.
But McMillian, who killed her boyfriend in a domestic dispute in 2009, was a fierce protector from prison, Fryson said. She monitored the welfare of her sons in phone calls to foster parents and agencies. She pushed to get her sons moved into a more suitable home when they told her they were having problems with one foster mother, Fryson said.
Her sons visited her at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, and went to a nearby sleep-away camp during the summer so they could spend more time with her.
When Fryson learned his mother had coronavirus and would be hospitalised, he immediately went to the homeless shelter where his family was staying in Kips Bay and got his brother. Doctors ordered them to quarantine for two weeks in his apartment on the Lower East Side, so they were unable to visit their mother before she died in the hospital.
The funeral was a blur, Fryson said. "It wasn't really much of a funeral. You can't see the person. They won't let you see the body. You just stand at the box for 10 minutes," he said.
He reached out to Lawyers for Children, which had represented them in the past. The group referred him to a private lawyer, Philip Katz, who said a judge recently awarded Fryson custody, although there are still complications.
Fryson cannot have overnight visitors for long stays at the supportive housing building where he lives, so EJ sometimes has to bunk with relatives. Fryson has applied to move into a larger apartment in the building so the brothers can live together full time.
Fryson said his mother would have wanted them to stay together. "She was a good mom," he said.
Written by: Nikita Stewart
Photographs by: Gabriela Bhaskar
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES