Relations Reporting on marriage, family, and sexuality

Coronavirus safety in (small) numbers

Coronavirus | Pandemic “support bubbles” can be lifesavers if done right
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 7/03/20, 03:08 pm

Christine Kirk’s son Nico will blow out birthday candles this week as he turns 6. The small celebration in suburban Los Angeles will include his parents and the families next door and across the street that make up their “quaran-team.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, microcommunities of friends, family, and neighbors have developed that distance themselves from outsiders but not each other. Calling themselves “quaran-teams,” “COVID bubbles,” or “quarantine pods,” some of them live together while others visit each other’s homes or gather outdoors. Success requires compatibility and communication to ensure people remain comfortable with the risks. Participants said the support reduced anxiety and depression. In some cases, it even saved lives.

From the start of the pandemic, New Zealand allowed single parents and individuals to form support bubbles to prevent mental distress and loneliness and to find childcare. It then permitted households’ bubbles to expand as transmission slowed.

In the United States, guidelines often emphasized limiting contact to one home even though more than 35 million Americans live alone. In some places, forming a bubble could have violated government rules. But individuals and families like the Kirks went ahead, quietly forming communities that enabled them to endure.

The Kirks’ three-household team includes six adults and five children between the ages of 4 and 7. It developed organically due to compatible risk mitigation, similar-aged children, and proximity.

“This little bubble that we created has just given us a sense of normal,” Christine Kirk said. For her, having fellow moms to talk with face-to-face when her anxiety flared was “priceless.” Her husband, Jason, also benefited from having men to talk to, especially after his job put him on furlough.

They’ve watched Nico become best friends with the other four children as they bicycled and scootered in the empty street day after day. “The three of us would be very different people, and not for the better, if we hadn’t had this support system,” Christine added.

The Bible makes clear the importance of human community from the second chapter of Genesis, when God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). That statement proved especially true for Brian Postow of Somerville, Mass., who lives alone and became nearly suicidal at the outset of the pandemic. He reached out to three close friends who live together and asked to be included. Once or twice a week he joins them for dinner and board games.

“I know that for me it’s been a lifeline,” Postow said. “My mental state is way, way, way better when I actually go over there.”

Mental health experts are starting to embrace the bubble strategy because it can stave off the depression of social distancing. Although riskier than eliminating all social contact, experts acknowledged members can still stay safe in social bubbles if they take proper precautions with outsiders. If anyone in a group contracts coronavirus (or suspects it), everyone in the bubble would need to assume exposure and quarantine.

"The idea is to break transmission chains in the population so that nobody within the bubble gets infected, or, importantly, if somebody within the bubble is infected the disease does not travel into the wider population," Oxford sociologist Per Block told ABC News. His new study suggested small groups or bubbles could flatten the curve more effectively than other methods such as confining interactions to a neighborhood.

Johns Hopkins University public health professor Tara Kirk Sell adopted the bubble strategy, joining with two families with children. Since all three have similar levels of outside childcare contact, she called it “leaky” but sustainable.

“We need to figure out how to manage the next year or more in responsible ways that still allow us to maintain the important components of our lives,” Sell told ABC News.

After months of extended isolation, more countries are warming to the concept. Belgium allowed people to start socializing in exclusive, distanced groups of four in May. The United Kingdom started permitting bubbles in June but only for single adults or single parents of children under 18.

Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Roberson (file) Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Roberson (file) A child plays outside the entrance to a closed park in St. Louis.

Happily wrong

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and schools abruptly closed, child welfare experts expected a spike in abuse cases involving kids stuck at home with people who might harm them.

Several months later, “no one has experienced the surge of abuse they were expecting,” said Lori Frasier, head of the child protection program at Pennsylvania State University’s Hershey Medical Center and president of a national society of pediatricians focused on child abuse prevention and treatment.

Frasier consulted with 18 colleagues nationwide who reported seeing no jump in abuse cases. She suggested the communal nature of the lockdowns, with families staying home together, protected children while federal financial aid eased the burden for struggling families.

Some experts believe it is too early to tell how lockdowns have affected vulnerable children since most have had little in-person contact with mandatory reporters like teachers, doctors, coaches, and social workers.

But others say early warnings were too dire. “To sound the alarm bells because teachers aren’t seeing kids every day, that parents are waiting to harm their kids—it’s an unfair depiction of so many parents out there doing the best under very tough circumstances,” said Jerry Milner, head of the Children’s Bureau at the Department of Health and Human Services. —Mary Jackson

Texas Home School Coalition Texas Home School Coalition Chris Clay and his daughter

Custody closure

The Texas Supreme Court unanimously awarded custody of a 5-year-old girl to her biological father rather than a man who was engaged to marry her now-deceased mother.

Chris Clay has been fighting for custody of his daughter for two years since her mother died in a car accident in 2018. The Denton County father’s predicament drew national attention as family and homeschool advocacy groups took up his cause to protect parental rights in custody disputes involving non-parents. The Texas Home School Coalition hired a public relations firm and started a social media campaign on behalf of Clay and his daughter called #LetHerStay.

The court ruled on June 26 that since Clay proved himself a fit parent, his daughter’s best interests were to remain in his sole custody. Justices said he has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning her care. The decision reversed a Denton County trial court judge’s order granting partial custody to the deceased mother’s fiancé.

The Texas Home School Coalition called the ruling “the most significant parental rights case in Texas history.” Holly Draper, an attorney representing Clay, called the ruling “a huge win for all parents in Texas.” —M.J.

Feds prosecute adoption lawyer

A former Arizona county assessor pleaded guilty on June 24 to charges related to a fraudulent adoption scheme that involved paying pregnant women from the Marshall Islands up to $10,000 to travel to the United States illegally to give up their babies for adoption.

Paul D. Petersen of Mesa, Ariz., a private adoption lawyer in Utah and Arizona and a former elected official in Maricopa County, faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for a federal human smuggling conspiracy charge. The federal case against him centers on the illegal travel of four Marshallese women, but he has previously pleaded guilty to state charges related to 40 expectant mothers. Adoptive parents paid him as much as $30,000 for his role as a “legal facilitator,” while the birth mothers received up to $10,000, according to federal prosecutors.

While rare, Petersen’s actions are “deeply troubling and harmful,” said Ryan Hanlon, vice president of education, research, and constituent services at the National Council for Adoption.

“The Petersen case underscores the importance of adoption services being transparent, ethical, and compliant with state and federal laws,” Hanlon said. After Petersen’s arrest on the state charges, the council issued new guidelines for expectant and prospective parents to help them detect fraud. —M.J.

Dads, play with your kids

Fathers who spend time engaging in physical play with their children inadvertently help them control their behavior and emotions later in life, according to a new study. Research from Cambridge University and the Lego Foundation looked into how parents play with children up until age 3 and its effect on their lives.

They concluded that fathers tend to engage in more activities like wrestling, tickling, chasing, and piggyback rides, which help children’s ability to control their feelings.

“It’s a safe environment in which children can practice how to respond,” Paul Ramchandani, one of the study’s authors, told The Guardian. “If they react the wrong way … it’s not the end of the world, and next time they might remember to behave differently.” —M.J.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia worked in communications in the Washington, D.C., area from 2005 to 2019 and was a fall 2012 participant in the WORLD Journalism Institute mid-career class. She relocated to Denver in 2019. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

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  • Narissara
    Posted: Sat, 07/04/2020 05:40 pm

    "Fathers who spend time engaging in physical play with their children inadvertently help them control their behavior and emotions later in life"?  What an odd choice of words.  Is it the intent of a well-ordered society that fathers don't train and discipline their children?  Or are we that opposed to giving fathers credit for doing something so essential to a well-ordered society on purpose, even if it is on an intuitive level?  

  • Laura W
    Posted: Mon, 07/06/2020 12:00 pm

    It does seem a little odd, but I think that the point is that simply being exposed to physical play in a safe environment will help children later on in life, on top of whatever structured training the fathers are (hopefully) providing.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Mon, 07/06/2020 03:37 pm

    Oh, I understood the point.  It's silly to me that we have to have a study to tell us what fathers seem to already know instinctively.  Mothers would be wise to learn to trust them a little.  The importance of this kind of unstructured, spontaneous play — roughhousing, even — is just one reason I think early childhood education is such a bad idea.  There's no time for that kind of play, and the programs tend to be dominated by women who fuss and fret that kind of play will have the opposite effect of what the study suggests.  

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