Fighting infant mortality: Racism top of the pile for Black family struggles

By: - March 8, 2021 12:50 am

Photo from Getty Images.

The Ohio Legislative Children’s Caucus took a direct look at racism as the prime factor for the state’s infants and mothers struggling to stay alive, particularly in Black communities.

In a recent meeting of the caucus, legislators laid out priorities for the current General Assembly, some of which are included in bills already under consideration in the legislature.

Peri-natal and birth support advocates spoke to the legislators about the need for help in their fields, including Medicaid reimbursement for their work and general acknowledgement of the overarching role that racism plays in creating a negative environment for Black babies and mothers.

“When you’re addressing aspects of black family health…you have to make sure you’re having the conversation in context of understanding how it is that our historical experience and current life experience have impacted us throughout all of the life domains,” said Jessica Roach, CEO of Restoring Our Own Through Transformation (ROOTT), an organization that works with Black families to educate them on topics ranging from breastfeeding and reproductive care to structural racism’s impact on the economy.

An Ohio Department of Health report from 2019 said that 34% of pregnancy-related deaths in the state occurred among Black women.

The Health Policy Institute of Ohio said 2019 data showed black infants were dying at nearly three times the rate of white infants. Ohio is at the bottom quartile of the country for maternal mortality as well.

“So, if the U.S. is doing poorly on these issues, Ohio is at the bottom of the pack,” said Reem Aly, vice president of the Health Policy Institute of Ohio.

Legislation was passed in a previous General Assembly tasked the legislature with implementing recommendations made by the Commission on Infant Mortality, but state Sen. Stephanie Kunze said it’s now time for to assess what else needs to be done.

Proposals currently being considered include post-natal Medicaid coverage for up to 12 months, Medicaid-covered doula care, along with a resolution that wasn’t passed in the last legislature to declare racism a public health crisis.

All of things need to be considered when trying to address Black maternal and infant mortality in the state, advocates said. Without talking about how the system sets people of color up at a disadvantage, no progress will be made, according to Roach.

“You can’t have the conversation about rates of incarceration, about access to care, about housing without actually having the conversations about slavery, development of the 13th Amendment, Jim Crow era, the GI bill and redlining, which still impacts the availability for loan origination to this day through FHA and conventional loans through banks,” Roach said.

Improving birth outcomes for Black families starts with the parents, said Christin Farmer, CEO and founder of Birthing Beautiful Communities. With prematurity a driving factor for infant death, a look at the stress level of the mothers can indicate risks to the babies. Those risks, come from a lack of support infrastructure systems made to work for Black families.

“We have a lot of stress that’s associated with trying to fit into a system that wasn’t built for us in the first place,” Farmer said.

Legislation, then, has to focus on building up infrastructures that will support Black families, and should include resources meant exclusively for those families, according to those attending the caucus meeting.

“It’s critical that any programs and policies that are put in place are tailored and resources are allocated to meet the needs of Black families specifically,” Aly said.



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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.