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Laura Whalen, center, with Cai, left, and Maji, right, at their home in Bridgewater, New Jersey. (Hannah Yoon, special to ProPublica)

COVID-19 Put Her Husband in the ICU. She Had to Be Hospitalized Next. The State Demanded to Know: Who Would Care for Their Children?

When Laura Whalen went to a hospital with COVID-19, she brought her kids. Her husband was already in an ICU, and she couldn’t risk them exposing their grandma. But the state told her to find someone to take them or it would.

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On the afternoon of March 24, as her symptoms from the coronavirus worsened, Laura Whalen found it difficult to talk. She would run out of breath before finishing a sentence. If she moved, even slightly, she coughed.

Her friend Robin, a nurse, grew alarmed at the wispy sound of her voice and urged her to go to the hospital. “Laura,” she said on the phone, “you need to go.”

“I’m not leaving my children,” Laura replied. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The 43-year-old mother in Bridgewater, New Jersey, was facing any parent’s worst nightmare: She was growing sicker by the hour but had no viable plan for taking care of her two children. The usual options for watching the kids were off the table because the Whalen children were likely infected with a virus that was contagious, unpredictable and lethal.

Her 45-year-old husband, Tony, was in a medically induced coma at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Somerville, a nearby town. In the six days since they had both tested positive for COVID-19, his health had been her priority. She’d been working the phones and Facebook to see if she knew anyone who could get him connected to an ECMO machine that would oxygenate his blood, or help him get an experimental antiviral drug called Remdesivir.

His decline had been steep. Even that day, after hanging up with her concerned friend, Laura thought first about Tony, wrapping her mind around the fact that she and her kids — Cai, 11, and Maji, 14 — might have to say goodbye to him on FaceTime. A nurse agreed to hold up a phone so they could see him. They thought they were looking at a large box, but the nurse said it was the bottom of a special bed. Tony was strapped in, facing the floor, in an effort to increase his oxygen level. All Laura and the kids could see was his shoulder.

As they told him they loved him, Laura’s friend called again but was unable to get through. Robin would have normally jumped in the car right then, but her daughter is immunocompromised and she couldn’t risk exposing herself, and thus her daughter, to the virus. Alarmed at the lack of response, Robin called the police to check on Laura.

The cruiser pulled up shortly after Laura and the kids ended their call. Two ambulances soon followed.

Laura knew she needed to go to the hospital, but she wasn’t going to leave the kids home alone for what likely would be days in the middle of a pandemic. Her elderly mom, who lived nearby, was always available to care for her grandchildren; but now, asking her to do so would be asking her to put her own life at risk. Laura decided she would bring the children with her to the hospital.

She told them to stuff their backpacks with books and games, picturing the possibility that she could wind up out of it, and she didn’t know how long they would be at the hospital. The only thing she could do for them, in that moment, was to make sure they could occupy their minds.

Within hours, the decision to keep the kids by her side would threaten to split the family further apart. If she couldn’t find someone to take them, she’d be told, the state of New Jersey would.

Laura and Tony Whalen met as teenagers at a church retreat. She was 16. He was 18. As an icebreaker, they were handed toilet paper and told to take just enough squares to get them through the weekend; for each square, they had to provide a detail about themselves.

Tony, who was tall with floppy brown hair, took a bunch of squares, and launched into a monologue about the various mishaps he experienced at his part-time job at Chicken Holiday, a local fast food restaurant. “I’m captivated,” Laura recalled. “I had a boyfriend at the time. But, you know, within hours, that was kind of forgotten.”

They married seven years later. She was more introverted, preferring the quiet of home. He loved being the center of attention. One Christmas while in middle school, his older brother Tom Whalen remembered, Tony posed a question to his step grandparents in front of their large Italian family: “You guys use condoms, or what?” The kids at the table laughed; the adults did not.

His brash sense of humor made some people uncomfortable but endeared him to others, including a group of brothers from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity he helped to establish at Rider University. He was all about people. At Sanofi pharmaceuticals, where he worked for 17 years, he was director of client engagement.

Tony Whalen, surrounded by his family. (Courtesy of Laura Whalen)

Tony embraced fatherhood. His dad died when he was a young boy, and he wanted to be involved in as many of his own kids’ pursuits as they would allow. When Cai joined the Cub Scouts, Tony stepped in to be the den leader. After Maji came out as nonbinary, Tony joined an LGBTQ group so he could learn more about how to offer support.

Amid it all, Tony was dealing with significant health problems. He had osteopenia, or weakened bones, and underwent surgeries beginning around age 3 for pectus excavatum, a condition where his chest was slightly sunken. After several bouts of pneumonia as an adult, he had a portion of a lung removed in an effort to reduce his risk of infection. He suffered multiple broken bones, and in the past two years, broke both hips and both wrists. “Even when he was well, he was sick,” his brother said. “He was always sick or he was always in pain.”

Yet Laura said she never considered Tony fragile. It was something they talked about just a few months ago, at a time when Tony was feeling down about his health. “I never, ever thought of you as sick or broken,” she said she told Tony.

When they both came down with the coronavirus, it left the couple exhausted. They would slump on the couch and watch television. “The kids were kind of fending for themselves,” she said. Instead of participating in online classes, they would wake up, sign in and go back to bed.

Tony’s condition began to worsen March 19, about a week after he first experienced symptoms. He had a persistent cough and wasn’t sleeping well. Tony didn’t want to go to the hospital, afraid it would expose him to other illnesses and infections that would make him even sicker. He hoped to ride out the virus at home, optimistic he would overcome it, like he had everything else.

But Laura found him at the kitchen table in the early morning of March 21, struggling to breathe. She woke up the kids. She wanted them to have some time with their father before the ambulance took him away.

On the night of March 24, Laura and the children were evaluated in the emergency room at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, about 10 miles away from the hospital where Tony was in critical condition.

Maji had mild symptoms; Cai had none. They didn’t need emergency care and the hospital wanted to discharge them. The staff soon began asking Laura who could take them.

“There’s no one,” Laura said she told the staff.

They asked about her mother. “My mother’s not sick,” she said. “My child is sick. You are essentially asking me to infect my mother.”

If Laura couldn’t find someone to take the children, the staff said, they would be forced to call the state’s child welfare agency.

A hospital spokesman said state law requires the facility to notify welfare officials if a parent is unable to find someone to care for their child. Both the state and the hospital declined to comment specifically on Laura’s description of events.

With her kids likely infected, Laura couldn’t risk putting them in the care of others. (Hannah Yoon, special to ProPublica)

Laura texted her friend Robin for help at 10:27 p.m.; she was a nurse at the hospital. Robin told her to talk to the nursing supervisor and ask for a compassionate admission where she and the children would be placed in a room together.

“They need to be creative here,” Robin wrote. “This is going to be a repeat issue. They should figure out how to assist you, not stress you.”

The appeal worked. Laura and her children were allowed to stay in a small room in the emergency area for several hours while they waited for a room that could better accommodate them. Laura had a bed; the children sat in hard chairs.

They were all struggling to sleep when, just after midnight, Laura’s phone rang with an unfamiliar number. It was a caseworker from the state Department of Children and Families, asking the same question the others had. Who could take the kids? The hospital’s social worker also called.

Laura was reaching a breaking point. She was sick. Her kid was sick. She was worried about her husband and couldn’t talk to him. She was on her own.

“I just said: ‘Fuck you. My kids are staying with me.’”

The question of what happens if parents get sick with the coronavirus and can’t care for their children is something “every state and city and town child welfare provider is struggling with,” said Christine James-Brown, president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America.

A spokeswoman for the state of New Jersey, Nicole Brossoie, said that when it receives reports that a parent is “incapacitated and unable to care for their child, the department has an obligation to respond.”

She said New Jersey has identified foster parents willing to take in children exposed to the virus. The state plans to quarantine children in that situation for 14 days. “All efforts are made to connect the children with family or someone familiar,” Brossoie said. “When that is not possible, foster care placement is arranged. … The department will take all necessary precautions to mitigate the spread.”

Like New Jersey, officials in Louisiana, Michigan and Washington told ProPublica they have begun planning for the possibility of having to place children who have been exposed and whose parents are hospitalized or have died.

It has become difficult to find willing foster families.

“They’re really, really hesitant of potentially exposing their own loved ones to something larger than just temper tantrums or behavior,” said Marcus Stallworth, a training and development specialist at the CWLA. Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association, agreed. “The caregivers are going to say: ‘No, we know this child’s exposed. I can’t do that to my family.’ So in these situations, either a state or a county agency has to then become the parent.”

At 4 a.m. on March 25, after spending several hours cramped in a small room in the emergency department, Laura decided she and the children would leave. She still couldn’t catch her breath and had a headache and fever that made her ears hurt. But they were all exhausted, and a solution for how to take care of the kids was no closer to being found. “I’m taking my kids and going home,” Laura told hospital staff. “This is ridiculous.”

Staff members moved them from the emergency department to a room with two beds and a recliner. They slept for five or six hours. Laura was getting oxygen and the medical attention she needed. “It was good,” Laura said.

But at 9:53 a.m., her phone ran again. It was the caseworker from the state. This time, the tone was different. “It was very clear they were going to take the kids,” Laura said.

Laura ran, once again, through a mental list of those who would ordinarily help with the children. She wished she had come up with a plan when she and Tony first got sick.

This time, she remembered one person she hadn’t considered, Tony’s stepfather Frank. Laura had assumed he was ill; Tony’s mother had the coronavirus. But then, as she was updating Tony’s mom about everything, she learned that Frank never developed symptoms even though he had been exposed to the virus for weeks.

Laura called Frank. It was the first time she’d ever asked him for child care help. “I need you to do this. Otherwise, they’re going to take the kids.” He understood.

Laura was relieved. Now she could focus on fighting the virus in her body.

A few hours later, Laura received another call. Tony was dead.

It’s quiet in the Whalen house these days. Tony was the one who filled it with Nirvana and Radiohead and adventure audiobooks like Harry Potter stuff he and the kids enjoyed together. Cai has poured himself into one of his dad’s passions, video games. Maji has retreated into their room. From a distance, many family members and friends have expressed their love. None have been able to come over and give them a hug.

Laura knows it will take time for the kids to get used to it all. In the past, when Maji had difficulty sleeping, Tony would rub the teen’s shoulders and put on a chapter of the novel “Artemis Fowl.” It doesn’t work when Laura does it.

But she is trying to pay attention to what has improved. “You get up and you take a tiny teeny step and it may not even look or feel like a step, but it’s a step,” she said.

She’s started working again at her job consulting at Johnson & Johnson and forces herself to wake up and get the day started. She pushes herself to take deep breaths to help get her lungs back in shape; each breath still comes with pain, but she knows that will fade.

She feels the same way about the pain of loss. Her father died when she was 21. The hurt was intense but not everlasting. “I know that the pain for Tony won’t last forever. I’m just going to have that faith and just choose to believe that,” she said. “And if I can do that … I can live through this moment.”

Most family members and friends could only support the Whalens from a distance. (Hannah Yoon, special to ProPublica)

Tony told Laura he didn’t want a funeral when he died. He wanted a celebration, with those in attendance hoisting shots in his honor. He recently became fond of peanut butter whiskey.

Laura said the shots will have to wait, but there will be a private funeral and viewing on Wednesday. Five people will be allowed in the room at a time.

When her father died, the family received a visit from their Catholic priest who said that if her dad were given a choice to come back or stay in heaven, he would choose heaven. “And that made me so angry and so sad,” she said. “You tell me that my dad would choose heaven over me and heaven over my brothers?”

His words have taken on a new meaning now. To her, heaven is real, and Tony is there, and if he was given a chance to come back, he wouldn’t. “And that’s OK, because his lungs are great and he’s happy,” she said, “and he’s with his own dad, and he’s with my dad, and he’s drinking whiskey and he’s playing pinochle and he is looking out for us.”

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