Sacramento forum explores disproportionate deaths of young blacks

04/05/2013 12:00 AM

04/06/2013 8:43 AM

It's clear that Richard Nelson still suffers deeply the loss of his daughter, who died trying to protect her 2-year-old son in a 2010 shootout at a Stockton Boulevard barbershop.

That's what brought Nelson out Thursday night to an Oak Park community hearing airing a blue-ribbon panel's plans on how to reduce African American child deaths: It was a chance to begin to get involved and pull out of his grief.

"I'm coming out to be candid," Nelson said. "That's how I am dealing with my pain – speaking to young people to ask them, 'Who are you? Do you know right from wrong?'

"It's painful. It bothers me," he said. "It took 2 1/2 years for me to deal with that."

Nelson, speaking on behalf of an initiative he's helping form to improve outcomes for young black males, urged county Supervisor Phil Serna to explore employment for black youth because "without jobs, nothing will change."

Among the findings Serna shared with the 50 or so people gathered for the public hearing at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church were these chilling Sacramento County statistics:

Though African American kids under 18 make up 12 percent of the population, they suffer 32 percent of homicides at the hand of someone other than a primary caregiver.

African American infants comprise 11 percent of the county's infant population but die shortly after birth at a rate of 25 percent. And, they make up 31 percent of infant sleep-related deaths.

African American kids make up 12 percent of the child population and 25 percent of child abuse and neglect homicide deaths.

"These numbers affected me enough that I wanted to try to do something about the chronic disproportionate rate," Serna told the group.

The figures stem from a meticulous process in which a county review board determines and catalogs the cause of death for every youth under 18 in Sacramento County. The effort has produced a rich and complex body of data, which other communities nationwide are examining in order to emulate what Sacramento County has achieved.

After gathering feedback from the community, Serna will present recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Disproportionate African American Child Deaths to the Board of Supervisors in early May.

The commission spent 18 months examining the problems exposed by the death review board's seminal 20-year report on kids who died in Sacramento County.

Overall, the report found that, from 1990 to 2009, African American children under 18 died at a rate two times higher on average than did white kids in the county.

Tyrone Netters, president of the NAACP of Sacramento, sits on that 30-member commission.

"What usually happens is, when the issue is brought to scale before elected officials, they tend to back away and say, 'We don't have the money,' " he said.

But the commission plans to locate willing nonprofit partners to help fund attempts to reverse the grim statistics, Netters said. Already, First 5 Commission Sacramento has tentatively promised $5 million, its executive director said.

In this, the third of three public hearings this week, Serna said the main message he's gotten from the community is to get African Americans involved in presenting solutions.

Amen, said the crowd, which by the middle of the meeting had broken up into four facilitated groups to draw up and propose plans of action.

In almost every category, the blue-ribbon panel had recommended improved training services, public education, more informed policies and culturally competent prevention campaigns.

Even before the public weighed in on the draft recommendations, the blue-ribbon panelists decided it was important to recruit community members to play the role of "cultural brokers," Netters said.

Nelson is prepared to step up to be one of those brokers in honor of daughter Monique Nelson, 30, who was strapping her son into his car seat when the shooting began and was struck by a stray bullet as she tried to shield him.

"Those of us who suffer have to go on," Nelson said, if only for his grandson, who survived, and to give other African American youths better odds at growing up healthy and safe.

Call The Bee's Cynthia H. Craft, (916) 321-1270. Follow her on Twitter @cynthiahcraft.

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