Battling Infant Mortality: Akron Group Works to Help Black Babies Survive
Summit County is channeling another two-and-a-half million dollars toward the centering groups that advocates say are one key to saving babies’ lives. The issue disproportionately impacts Blacks, who have an infant mortality rate more than twice as high as those of non-Hispanic whites. We visit one of the circles of expectant parents receiving extra support.
"I want you to use your thighs to stand up, and we still got our Kegels tight. Come on. Stand up.”
Women nearing their due dates lift themselves out of their chairs and squeeze as directed at the Centering Pregnancy Group at Summa’s Health Equity Center in Akron. The center is in a zip code that’s a hot spot for infant mortality.
The issue is a special focus in the Full Term First Birthday Greater Akron Collaborative, formed in 2017. However, success has been uneven.
Preliminary 2019 numbers, which are subject to change, show more than 15 deaths per thousand births for non Hispanic African-Americans in Summit County, up almost two from 2018.
And COVID-19 has dealt a blow,suspending the face-to-face group interactions seen as a crucial tool in the battle against infant deaths.
During a March meeting in the pre-pandemic days, six relaxed expectant parents, including one dad, enjoyed conversation in a circle.
“I feel empowered by the knowledge that I’m gaining every two weeks that I come to be a better mother, not just for this child, but for my eight-year old daughter, too," 30-year-old LeTesha Jeffries said.
Jeffries said that with her first baby, she was in an unstable relationship and self-centered. She left her own mother to do most of the parenting for the first two years. A common story, according to facilitator Taba Aleem.
“And the first thing they say is, 'After I have this baby, I’m going to turn it up.' They call it turning it up. Oh boy. Turning it up, meaning they’re going out to party and drink," Aleem said.
"Right, yeah. Well you shouldn’t do it, you know. That’s the time that’s really important when you should be bonding with your child," Jeffries responded.
OB-GYN, Dr. Cheryl Johnson, who is also African-American, answers questions, teaches and monitors blood pressure and weight.
“It's two hours with patients. And so I know them by name. I know when, how many children they have. I know what it took for them to get here. I know who we will provide transportation for and who comes on their own," Johnson said. "I know who might live in a food desert and access to food might be a challenge. And so I get to treat that person holistically.”
In the circle, the women are comfortable, which is not always the case in doctor’s offices. A 2017 study on discrimination in America by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health reported that 22 percent of African-Americans avoided medical care due to concern for racial discrimination. This can delay important prenatal care.
“That’s probably the biggest part of our African-American community is we wait too long," Aleem said.
Research shows that black women experience more chronic stress from factors like poverty, racism and perceived anxiety than white women. This contributes to more premature births, which Johnson says is the highest risk factor for infant mortality.
“Maternal stress does cross all socioeconomic statuses, which means that even if I got pregnant now that the infant mortality rate for me mirrors that of all African-American women," Johnson says. "Even if there was a Caucasian 18-year-old, her outcome would be better than mine."
The group helps mothers like Jeffries cope with the unique stress experienced by black women.
“I learned a lot of stuff about my body, a lot of stuff as being a black woman. Things that we go through that other women don’t go through," Jeffries said.
Within the circle, women identify the sources of their stress, especially with regards to racism, according to the clinical director of the Minority Behavioral Health Group, Tania Lodge.
“Hopefully, if we just really understand the impact of oppression on the African-American experience, if we can recognize that that's what's happening in the moment, then we are more likely to be able to do things that's going to be healthy versus isolate and withdraw or refuse to go to our appointment," says Lodge.
“A support system is key, whether it be here at Summa or whether it be at Akron General, Cleveland Clinic," said Community Health worker Ericka Malone. "Find a positive support system. We’re much smarter together than we are individually.”
Malone, and the entire circle, are now meeting virtually, following the outbreak of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Jeffries can move onto the Centering Parenting Group after welcoming her healthy daughter, Tru'Mya Walker.
WKSU’s reporting on the issue of infant mortality is funded through an Informed Communities Grant from The Cleveland Foundation and the Akron Community Foundation and is part of a collaboration with Spectrum News One Ohio.
Editor's note: We have updated the headline to the more inclusive term Black.