Bereavement Study Helps Children Who Suffer Parental Loss

Poor and minority children are at special risk of experiencing the death of a parent from causes such as drug abuse, accidents, homicide, and AIDS. In many instances, the emotional consequences of such a loss interact with the stress of low income environments, and may render disadvantaged children incapable of adolescence. These children are the neglected victims of urban trauma.

Guided by theory, empirical research, and earlier clinical work, the demonstration tested an innovative group service for New York City African-American and Hispanic children affected by the untimely death of a parent figure. Over 40 bereaved children, aged 6-12, participated in a series of 16, 90-minute group sessions. In groups of six, children of similar ages met with a skilled group leader. Children were asked to draw pictures of their deceased parents, share recurring fears and images, and tell of their sadness. Over time, they revealed their coping strategies, and applied each other's adaptive thoughts and behaviors to their own situations. Ethnically relevant material, woven throughout the sessions, gave recognition to the positive value of family and community traditions.

Begun at the Manhattan North Office, the pilot project was funded by a one year grant from the Marion E. Kenworthy and Sarah H. Swift Foundation to the Center. Professor Robert F. Schilling, from Columbia University School of Social Work, is principal investigator. JBFCS psychiatrists Dr. Nina Koh, the originator of the bereavement treatment model, and Dr. Robert Abramovitz, are co-investigators. The pilot effort has now become a regular service in five JBFCS offices.

As early evaluation, based on pre- and post-test data from 23 complete cases, produced intriguing results. Participating children showed significant improvements in realistic attitudes towards death, and small gains on measures of depression. Over time, parents perceived their children as slightly more depressed, perhaps suggesting that parents became more aware of their children's affective state. Children and care-givers were very positive about the groups. Although an exploratory study, this demonstration suggests that groups are effective vehicles for treating bereaved children from low income minority families. Future plans call for larger samples, and for examing the predictors of improvement.