Editorial: County must trim death rate of black children

Published: Monday, May. 6, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 8, 2013 - 7:52 pm

The numbers are startling. African Americans are 12 percent of the child population of Sacramento County, but they made up 22 percent of child deaths over a 20-year period beginning in 1990. Black children are more than twice as likely to die as white children, Asian Americans or Latinos. Those are the findings of a blue-ribbon commission, established at the behest of Supervisor Phil Serna, to better understand the disproportionate rate of black child deaths.

This is a touchy topic. It involves race, poverty and kids. But county supervisors must not ignore it when it comes before them this week.

African American children are not at higher risk for every type of death. In fact, for cancer, drowning and car accidents, they die at rates slightly below those of other children. But there are four specific areas where black children face extraordinary and unacceptable risks – third-party homicides, child abuse and neglect homicides, birth-related deaths and infant sleep deaths.

None of this is surprising. A litany of woes – racism, poverty, crime, unemployment, substance abuse – has long plagued poor black communities. While they may explain the problem, they don't excuse it. Studies show these deaths can be prevented.

Take sleep-related infant deaths. Infants die because they are placed in unsafe beds – an adult bed or sofa or crib with too many pillows or stuffed animals. They die because they sleep with an adult or other child who may roll over them, or because they are put to bed on their stomachs. In the past, educational programs that taught pregnant women about sleep-related infant deaths substantially reduced such tragedies. Those programs need to be renewed.

High rates of third-party homicides among black youths are traced to firearms, alcohol, drugs, gang involvement and crime.

Known risk factors in black child abuse and neglect deaths are alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness and the involvement of Child Protective Services.

The disproportionate rate of birth-related deaths is attributed to poor maternal health, smoking, substance abuse and stress.

There are proven strategies to address all these risks – after-school recreation programs, birthing and child-rearing classes, nurse home visits, mentoring programs, youth employment help, substance abuse counseling and something as simple as funding for cribs for newborns whose families can't afford them.

Tuesday, county supervisors will be asked to commit $100,000 annually in county funds for the next five years to help coordinate efforts to reduce African American child fatalities. The county's investment is contingent on equal contributions from the First 5 Sacramento Commission and from the county's major hospitals and foundations. It is money well worth spending, and not just because it will save innocent lives.

High rates of child deaths are a barometer of deeper community problems. It costs $1,200 to to enroll a family in a birthing and child-rearing program. It can cost 10 times that much to send a damaged infant into the child welfare system and even more to a hospital emergency room. Sacramento County has an opportunity to save young lives and save money.

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