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Black Infant Death Rates Down In Sacramento Following Massive Community Efforts

Sammy Caiola

Pastor Les Simmons stands with other leaders from the Valley Hi neighborhood at a Sacramento County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

Sammy Caiola

Government and community leaders have described lowering Sacramento’s African-American child death rates as “moving a mountain.” Seven years after identifying the problem, they’re celebrating a step in the right direction.

For more than two decades, black children in Sacramento have died at twice the rate of other racial groups due to perinatal conditions, unsafe sleep, child abuse and homicide, according to data from the county’s child death review team.

A report presented on Monday by the First 5 Sacramento Commission indicates the rate of African-American infant deaths decreased 45 percent between 2013 and 2016. The disparity between black infant deaths and other ethnic groups has narrowed significantly.

“We do see from today’s report that we’re headed in the right direction,” said Linda Fong-Somera, program planner for the commission. “We’ve had significant decreases in many of the areas.”

The county formed a blue ribbon commission on black child deaths in 2013, recommending more funding to combat the issue in neighborhoods where rates are highest, including Oak Park, Arden-Arcade, South Sacramento, North Highlands and Del Paso Heights. Supervisors voted in 2015 to commit $26 million over a five-year period to the issue.

Since, First 5 has been working with the city, the county and a group of community leaders called the Black Child Legacy Campaign to launch public education efforts around black infant health. They’ve expanded classes that teach safe sleeping techniques, pregnancy support programs, after school activities and more.

Fong-Somera said working with young moms on the ground has made a huge difference. The new report found that women in these educational programs were much more likely to put babies to sleep safely — alone, on their back, and in a crib — after they finished than when they enrolled.

Stevisha Bowers, a 34-year-old pregnant mother from South Sacramento, told the board that First 5’s programs have been crucial. She’s already a mother of eight, and said she wished she’d had this kind of support as a teen mom.

“[My mentor] came up to my home, we got to talking, we did an hour orientation on the practices of sleeping,” she said. “It was just a big help for me and my family ... as a young mother, and as an African-American mother, just to know that there are organizations and agencies out there that do provide.”

Members of the Black Child Legacy Campaign showed up in full force Tuesday to vouch for the work they’ve been doing in neighborhoods. County Supervisor Phil Serna, who launched the original blue ribbon commission, applauded them. He also noted that while the tables seem to be turning for young children, there’s still a great deal of work to be done to prevent violent deaths among teens.

The county’s child death review team is expected to provide more comprehensive data early next year.

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