Dying while black in Sacramento

New county report has officials finally answering for endangered minority youth

Black children make up only 12 percent of Sacramento County’s under-18 population but 22 percent of all deaths.

Black children make up only 12 percent of Sacramento County’s under-18 population but 22 percent of all deaths.

Phil Serna was astounded.

Black children die at twice the rate of other Sacramento County youths, and have been for at least 20 years. The first-term supervisor looked around the room and didn’t see his own shock reflected in his fellow political leaders’ eyes.

“I let it affect me,” Serna admitted.

The poorly kept secret is now affecting others.

Between 1990 and 2009, 3,633 children died in the county. Twenty-two percent of those kids, or 816, were black, even though they make up only 12 percent of the county’s under-18 population.

While the rate of all child deaths declined over time, black children continue to perish at a significantly higher rate from preventable causes.

“For two decades, known data has been reported that African-American children in Sacramento County die at disproportionately high rates when compared to other children,” a blue-ribbon commission told county supervisors earlier this month. “In effect, a full generation of children has grown up, or has not been able to.”

First 5 Sacramento Commission received $100,000 in seed money from supervisors to help coordinate the blue-ribbon panel’s recommendations.

A number of those working in Sacramento’s black communities told supervisors during an emotional hearing on May 7 that they’ve been waiting for someone to pay attention.

“It breaks my heart to be here today, talking about something that we’ve dealt with for so long,” said Tina Roberts, who runs a north Sacramento after-school program. “But I’m grateful for the opportunity, and I look forward to us doing something different.”

The blue-ribbon commission could be that something. First 5 executive director Toni J. Moore said a similarly damning report to county officials several years back went nowhere. But, after being confronted with the child-death report in 2011, Serna formed the commission to delve into why local black kids are consistently dying at twice the rate of other kids.

Serna downplayed his role, but allowed that he brought fresh eyes to what had become a muffled epidemic.

“I can’t fathom another disgusting statistic like we’ve been seeing,” he told SN&R. “To take the information and do nothing with it would be tragic.”

Buoyed by Serna’s political backing, the panel spent the ensuing 18 months creating a database that examines each child death in the county, detailing both direct and indirect causes.

The No. 1 cause of death for black youth is third-party homicides: 44 were murdered in the reported time period. Most were between the ages of 15 and 17, and most died from gunshot wounds.

This past Tuesday, the Sacramento City Council was scheduled to consider using about $600,000 in Measure U money to reduce gang- and youth-violence, create programs for at-risk youth, and implement a “cease fire” program in an undetermined neighborhood.

The Sacramento City Unified School District saw an 8 percent drop in reported gang involvement among sixth- and seventh-graders between 2010 and 2011, district officials said last week.

Those separate but related efforts, Moore said, “are what we want to hitch onto.”

Other big issues affecting black children are high rates of abuse and neglect, pre- and post-natal health conditions and infant sleep deaths.

The latter could be reversed through education measures—babies should sleep alone on their backs in proper cribs—that lost funding in recent years, commission members said. Abuse and perinatal deaths will be knottier issues to untangle, and reflect deeply ingrained institutional forces afflicting black America.

“We now have data to support the fact that African-American women are experiencing the loss of their babies and their children on issues related to the stress of simply being African-American in America,” California Black Health Network executive director Brenda Darcel Lee told supervisors. “We are not saying this is the only cause, but this is a primary cause.”

Most of the deaths are concentrated in poor, neglected neighborhoods like Meadowview, Valley Hi, Del Paso Heights, North Highlands, Arden Arcade, Oak Park and Fruitridge Manor. These are also the neighborhoods where school closures hit hardest in recent years.

Alcohol, drugs and violent crime also recur as risk factors in each of the four main causes of death.

“By the time these cases come to our office, it’s too late,” said special Deputy District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who leads her office’s child-abuse unit. “It’s too late to save them anymore.”