Slow saviors: Sacramento’s efforts to curb African-American child deaths take shape at the community level

Progress unclear as stakeholders continue responding to 5-year-old crisis

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.
This is an extended version of a story that ran in the December 15, 2016, issue.

Since raising the alarm five years ago on the threats disproportionately killing African-American children in Sacramento County, progress on curbing those perils has been steady, if slow, according to the group tasked with addressing them.

In 2011, a 20-year analysis by the Sacramento County Child Death Review Team showed that black children consistently die at approximately twice the rate of their white counterparts. Reacting to those chilling statistics, Supervisor Phil Serna convened the Blue Ribbon Commission on Disproportionate African American Child Deaths, which outlined a five-year strategy that was initiated in the fall of 2015.

The implementation plan marshals approximately $7.5 million in funding through a contract between the county Department of Health and Human Services and the Sierra Health Foundation’s Center for Health Program Management. Working with First 5 Sacramento, the city and county of Sacramento are participating in a multifaceted strategy meant to address everything from high homicide and fatal abuse rates to a lack of pre- and perinatal care for black pregnant women.

But according to the most recent update, local black children accounted for 23 percent of the county’s under-18 deaths in the fiscal year ending 2013-14, despite making up 11 percent of the county’s child population.

Briefing supervisors on November 15, Health and Human Services Director Sherri Heller advocated a sense of urgency, saying her department, which oversees public health and Child Protective Services, sees these figures as more than just academic.

“We have a sense of responsibility to our kids,” Heller told supervisors. “We have to understand these phenomena and act to change them. … We’re talking about not ‘those children,’ but our kids.”

Responding to the crisis is the sole purpose of the Steering Committee on Reduction of African American Child Deaths, or RAACD, which has set a benchmark of reducing the deaths of its target population by 10 to 20 percent by 2020. The strategy enlists multiple government agencies and focuses outreach in the areas of Del Paso Heights, Meadowview, Valley Hi, North Highlands, Arden-Arcade, Oak Park and Fruitridge-Stockton, where the mortality rates are higher.

So-called “community incubator leaders,” or CILs, have also been appointed to coordinate social services in these neighborhoods, providing street-level access to families in need.

Ray Green, of the Roberts Family Development Center, is the CIL for the Del Paso Heights neighborhood and says the cross-organizational collaboration represents an unprecedented approach.

“We haven’t reinvented the wheel, but what we’re doing [that’s] new is that it’s a collaborative effort,” he told SN&R. “All of the partners who have been doing the work … we’re all collaborating together on one subject and one topic, which is reducing African American child deaths.”

The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, which manages the RAACD steering committee, is focused on educating target communities about the four biggest threats preventing African-Americans from surviving childhood: child abuse and neglect, third-party homicides, perinatal health and sleep-related infant deaths.

“I think we’re beginning to see small signs of success,” said Sierra Health Foundation CEO Chet Hewitt, co-chair of the steering committee. “I think we are beginning to see some good changes in the reductions in low birth-weight babies, which leads to perinatal conditions of premature death.”

Health figures available through the county’s open data portal illustrate some of the troubling disparities.

For instance, nearly 2 percent of babies born to African American mothers in Sacramento County had very low birth weights in 2013, according to state data available through the portal, almost double the rate of white mothers. Substantiated child abuse cases, meanwhile, clicked in at a nearly 30-percent rate for every 1,000 black children in 2015, and only hit a 10-percent rate for every 1,000 white children. Another telltale sign was in hospitalizations for pediatric asthma: Nearly 25 percent of black children were hospitalized for breathing problems between 2012 and 2014, compared to less than 7 percent of white children.

Though Hewitt cautioned that it was too early to state conclusively how successful the county’s efforts would prove, he expressed optimism.

“While we have a lot of work to do, as an advocate, I’m pretty encouraged by the path that we’re on, but now we do have to show some measurable effects,” he added.

Face-to-face interactions are what could prove most effective, according to North Highlands-Foothill Farms CIL Paris Dye, who works with the neighborhood’s Liberty Towers Church. One of the biggest challenges, Dye said, is getting families to come out and involve themselves in the programs being offered. To that end, Dye said, leads like her are hoping to reach parents in the affected communities by going through their children.

“Our biggest impact right now is working directly with youth in the neighborhood,” Dye told SN&R.

Aside from hosting youth athletic programs that tote along parents, Dye said weekly community engagement workshops aim to build those relationships by mixing information and aid. For instance, one program offers free baby cribs to families who complete a sleep-safety workshop.

Green highlighted a broad partnership between his community center and the Urban League headquarters off of Marysville Boulevard. By the end of December, the Urban League will function as a location where residents can obtain information about family resources like Birth & Beyond’s home visitation program, or meet with social workers, probation officers and other county employees. The government-community collaboration is being executed in a way he said has never happened before.

“They’re all wanting to get engaged,” Green said. “That’s exciting for me. They all want to play a part. We always want to make sure that its community taking care of community. When I say this has never been done before I’m saying that from the perspective of the county entities being able to have social services in the direct community to serve that specific community. I don’t know of anything like that that’s ever been done.”