Jeff Schnaufer | First 5 LA Writer/Editor

September 29, 2022

(Editor’s Note: The names of the mother and children in the following story have been changed to protect their anonymity. This is one of three vignettes illustrating the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on families with young children. Each vignette highlights a key finding from a survey of L.A. County parents of young children two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. All interviews were conducted in the spring and summer. Read the full article on the survey results here.)

Outside the motel room, the children’s anguished cries never seem to stop.  

Inside the room, their mother hopes for their words to begin.  

She is Mary, a single homeless mother living in a motel in southeast Los Angeles County. The children are her 4-year-old daughter, Georgia and 2-year-old son, Carl. A domestic violence survivor, Mary has been moving between shelters and motels with her children. Her income is limited. Necessities can be hard to come by.  

“There are times I myself don’t eat to make sure my kids eat,” Mary said.  

Yet her children’s anguished cries do not arise from the pain of empty bellies. They come from nearly empty vocabularies. Georgia and Carl struggle to communicate. They are both children with special needs, Mary said. Speech is their greatest developmental delay, but Mary wonders if there may be more delays. So far, however, she has been unable to get a complete diagnosis.   

In 2020, both children were receiving speech therapy. The therapist came to visit them because Mary’s only family transportation was a double stroller.  

“I can’t have them walking with me because of their special need,” Mary said. “They don’t understand the concept of traffic.”  

Then came the pandemic and an end to the speech therapy visits. Mary was told that many speech therapists suddenly quit. And virtual visits did not work for her children.  

“Unfortunately, virtual speech therapy for a 2-year-old was not working because of her attention span,” Mary said of Georgia. “She didn’t understand why I was sitting her down with the phone in front of her. She started freaking out when the phone would ring. She needs that in-person attention.”  

As the therapy visits stopped, the children’s speech development stalled.  

Nor were they alone. According to a survey of 269 L.A. County parents of young children conducted during the spring for First 5 LA, 32 percent of parents had a child receiving developmental support services such as speech therapy, physical therapy, social skills support, etc. Of these parents, 62 percent reported that the pandemic had prevented or delayed their children from receiving developmental services.  

“Because of the pandemic, they missed therapy hours and are behind where they should be,” Mary said of her children. 

As for Carl, Mary said: “To this day he knows no words. He is 2 years and 4 months. He is only cooing.” 

Meanwhile, 4-year-old Georgia’s frustration grew louder.  

“My daughter is becoming more aggressive because of not being able to communicate,” Mary said. “The owner of the motel was knocking on the door because the person next door to me complained. The owner said if we don’t get quiet, he was going to kick us out.” 

“I’m like, ‘Oh God. I feel like I’m being tested.’” 

Mary and her children were moved to the farthest, most isolated edge of the motel. But the frustrations did not end. They were eventually moved to another motel.  And the children continued their struggle to communicate.  

Fortunately, Mary did not have to struggle alone.    

When her son was born in 2019, Mary was invited to join a free, voluntary home visiting program called Parents As Teachers, funded by First 5 LA. 

Home visits can improve parents’ knowledge and skills, help develop social support systems, and can significantly improve access to education, health and community services. With Parents As Teachers, the home visitor works with families until the child is 5. First 5 LA also funds other home visiting programs, including Welcome Baby.  

Before and during the pandemic, home visitor Sonia has helped provide Mary and her kids with food, diapers, wipes, clothes, a laptop with internet service and other necessities. And she keeps hope alive that her children will receive speech therapy again.  

“It’s difficult with transient families because they are not in one place,” Sonia said. “Some agencies providing speech or occupational therapy can’t go beyond their geographic limits or zip codes. If a family goes beyond the boundary, they need to be assigned to someone else. So she has fallen through the cracks several times.” 

Fortunately, Sonia says, “because our home visiting program does allow for this continuum of care, I’m still going out to her and providing parenting skills and what I can. It’s a blessing.” 

To aid in her parenting, Mary said Sonia “tells me what kinds of activities I can do with them to help them. Playing with toys, role playing. When I was a first-time mom, I wasn’t aware of those things. Sonia is very resourceful.”  

Sonia has also been there to help Mary deal with stress, which has affected parents of young children throughout L.A. County during the pandemic. According to the survey for First 5 LA, more than half of parents (54 percent) reported that they have struggled most with stress or anxiety during the pandemic.   

“It’s difficult with transient families because they are not in one place. Some agencies providing speech or occupational therapy can’t go beyond their geographic limits or zip codes. If a family goes beyond the boundary, they need to be assigned to someone else. So she has fallen through the cracks several times.” – Sonia, home visitor

“It’s been stressful. Sonia’s been emotionally supportive,” Mary said.  

“I do a lot of validating of her feelings. I’m her number one cheerleader,” said Sonia, adding that Mary is “remarkable. She’s very resilient. If I give her a number to call, she calls it. She is now getting mental health services for the 4-year-old. That’s been helpful. She’s going to do well by her children.” 

Hopefully, Sonia said, Mary’s resilience will help lead to continuation of speech and occupational therapy services with the regional center.  

Then Mary can look forward to the day when her children’s anguished cries fade . . .  

. . . their words form . . .  

. . . and they all find peace.  

WHERE TO FIND HELP: About 1 in 4 children aged 0-5 are at risk for a developmental delay. Help Me Grow LA, funded by First 5 LA and its partners, supports all families in promoting young children’s development and lifelong success by connecting them to developmental services and supports that promote their child’s well-being.  Help Me Grow LA is here to make sure your child’s development is on track. Visit or call 833.903.3972 for help!