‘Matter of life and death for our babies.’ How neighborhoods are saving black children

‘Speak up and speak out’ to prevent deaths of African American youth

Black Child Legacy Campaign has a goal of reducing childhood death rates by up to 20 percent by 2020.
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Black Child Legacy Campaign has a goal of reducing childhood death rates by up to 20 percent by 2020.

At the center of Tanya Bean-Garrett’s home is a makeshift memorial, honoring her teenage son who was shot just steps away in the room next door.

Closet doors have been removed to reveal walls lined with photos, drawings and scrapbook photos of Deston Garrett, a 19-year-old Sacramento Charter High School student athlete who grew up in the Oak Park house. Known to most by his nickname “Nutter,” Garrett was a jokester who always seemed to have a smile on his face. He died from his gunshot wounds, just days before his graduation last June.

The same month, parents, local officials and health professionals launched a multimillion-dollar effort that, over the next five years, aims to reduce the disproportionately high rate of early deaths such as Garrett’s among young African Americans in Sacramento County.

Bean-Garrett said her son’s death especially resonated with her neighbors because of where the shooting happened.

“It was at home, in the comfort of his own room, in a safe place, where other kids came and other parents knew and dropped their children off,” Bean-Garrett said. “Each individual person that has had a death, the story is different but the tragedy is the same.”

Even at home, the death of a young African American in the county’s most vulnerable neighborhoods is a regular occurrence. Some die through gun violence, crime or at the hands of a parent or caregiver. Many more die in sleep-related incidents such as sudden infant death syndrome or through perinatal conditions such as premature births or low birth weights.

A Sacramento Bee investigation found that from 2010 to 2015, nearly a quarter of the 873 children who died in the county were black, although they make up just 11 percent of the population in that age group.

“This is a matter of life and death for our babies,” said Kim Williams, manager of Fruitridge’s Sacramento Building Healthy Communities, or the Hub, an incubator in the campaign. “Our communities are suffering right now, and if we don’t do something soon, it’s going to get worse.”

As part of the Black Child Legacy Campaign, last July, seven neighborhood centers began receiving $120,000 annually over the next three years through a county-funded steering committee.

The organizations, many with a long history of serving their communities, act as the campaign’s boots on the ground ensuring they reach their goal of reducing childhood death rates by 10 to 20 percent over a five-year period.

With the new funding, existing programs such as movie nights aimed at getting families and children away from violence at home or in the street are now accompanied by parenting classes, including ones tailored for those recovering from an addiction. Communication between once-isolated neighborhoods has improved dramatically, creating a countywide network of leaders sharing advice, experience and manpower. Longstanding mistrust of local government agencies has begun to thaw, with new in-house officials cutting through previous bureaucratic obstacles to help people in need of housing or food vouchers get aid faster than ever.

“Where before we had to throw this broad spaghetti out to the community and say, ‘Come in, what do you all need?’ now we have a specific path we can go down,” said Paris Dye, incubator lead at Liberty Towers Church in North Highlands. “Finally there’s money that goes directly to the people.”

‘Meeting them where they’re at’

Liberty Towers used that money to educate soon-to-be mothers about the importance of perinatal care and safely sleeping newborns. Dozens of information pamphlets about perinatal care and safe sleep practices were printed and ready to be handed out.

It was only after distribution, however, that Dye realized a fundamental flaw in the center’s plan: Many of the women receiving them could not read well enough to understand the information printed.

“If you hand them a flyer without knowing if they can read or not, you’re not meeting them where they’re at,” Dye said.

It became a learning moment for the organization and its fellow community groups. Goodwill alone would not be enough. With the moniker “incubator,” the organizers had to adapt and solve unforeseen and longstanding challenges with a Silicon Valley start-up-like intensity.

Liberty Towers’ weekly email blasts began to include a video of someone reading the same information. They’ve also produced educational documentaries, with an emphasis on literacy, with mothers who have received help through the Black Child Legacy Campaign walking viewers through safe sleep practices and other lessons.

Engaging young people has become a major part of the campaign’s efforts, as the long-term sustainability of its mission relies on them not just showing up to events, but putting them on years down the line.

Some neighborhood groups had already been offering free in-home visitations and parenting classes for pregnant women prior to the Black Child Legacy Campaign, such as Arden Arcade’s Mutual Assistance Network, according to incubator lead Danielle Lawrence.

But where their programming still lagged, Lawrence said, was services for teens – who might be in charge of putting a sibling to bed, or who would become parents themselves one day.

Over the last year, the center has offered youth anger management classes helping teenagers learn how to handle the everyday stresses of poverty or social injustices. Lawrence said she hopes to break the cycle of child abuse and neglect that can sometimes plague generations of families.

Every 10th-grader at Encina High School, for instance, now writes papers on the county reports detailing the high rates of African American child deaths. And each incubator runs entirely teen-led research programs where high school students from each neighborhood investigate one of the leading causes of early deaths among African American children.

Students, such as recent Hiram W. Johnson High School graduate Araiye Thomas-Haysbert, plan to ask neighbors in a door-knocking campaign what resources and services they want from the Black Child Legacy Campaign.

For the first two years of high school, Thomas-Haysbert moved to six different schools as her family struggled with homelessness. Joining Building Healthy Communities provided much-needed stability to graduate on time.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Thomas-Haysbert said. “I’m doing it now so that when I get older, my sister can get involved.”

Not in this alone

People don’t stay in Arden Arcade long. Residents tend to be between homes or between jobs. In 2014, one in four African Americans in the neighborhood was unemployed, and almost 40 percent of the community had moved within the last four years. Most drive or take public transportation to get from place to place – in the area around Mutual Assistance Network, it can be rare to find someone outside a parking lot.

That has left many residents isolated and ignored, Lawrence said. And as families struggle to find long-term affordable housing or a steady job, the stress at home can create an environment ripe for potential child abuse.

“That’s where our supports come in to help make sure that the children are safe, and child abuse and neglect doesn’t occur,” said Lawrence, whose organization hosts several parenting and safe-sleep classes. “It’s a heavy task. However, I think that our sites are skilled to handle it.”

A year in, the black youth project has helped to connect groups in disparate Sacramento neighborhoods to solve their problems together, rather than grapple with them alone.

For example, when Ray Green of Del Paso Heights’ Roberts Family Development Center needed some hoops for an upcoming basketball game the organization was hosting, Dye in North Highlands was more than happy to offer the ones at Liberty Towers Church.

“Talking to this youth on the south side is gonna prevent this youth in Del Paso Heights from getting shot,” Green said. “Going to some of their activities and events is gonna change the narrative.”

During a peace walk in June following a series of shootings in Oak Park, something as simple as seeing leads from other neighborhoods who came from Del Paso Heights has helped forge cross-town coalitions, said Lamar Thorpe of the Greater Sacramento Urban League.

And because Dye knows a studio up north, Lawrence said, the other incubators now plan on shuttling kids there to record a spoken-word podcast.

Small acts of kindness have inspired bigger acts of generosity, Green said.

On April 23, two 18-year-old men were shot and killed outside a suspected marijuana grow house in Fruitridge.

As news of the shooting was unfolding on TV, Williams remembered seeing experienced crisis responders from both North Sacramento and Oak Park community centers already on scene, helping spread information from police officers to residents and organizing the logistics for a vigil.

When community organizers later went from house to house to ask whether neighbors were OK, Williams said it didn’t matter that the person knocking wasn’t from Fruitridge. Wearing their campaign shirts, already fading from frequent use, Williams said most neighbors were just happy to have someone concerned for their well-being.

“A lot of the community’s residents were just like, ‘Wow, thank you. Nobody’s ever asked me,’ ” Williams said.

Since the start of the campaign, leaders from the community centers have been holding monthly meetings to not only share success stories, but also talk strategies on how to achieve them in their own neighborhoods, said Tamika L’Ecluse, also with the Urban League.

And now when a mother with a newborn receiving in-home visitations moves from Arden Arcade to, say, Meadowview, Lawrence said the connected incubators can make sure those services continue uninterrupted.

“We are not in this alone, nor can we even put a dent in this disparity by ourselves,” Lawrence said. “We all have to win. … We should all be strategizing so that all children can live.”

Community ties at a whole other level

It was just after 6 p.m. on a recent July night when Kindra Montgomery-Block got the call.

Shootings throughout Del Paso Heights and Oak Park had left several gang-affiliated teens injured, with tensions running high at the hospital, said the Rev. Les Simmons, the lead at the Valley Hi incubator South Sacramento Christian Center. Police and hospital officials were barring everyone from the hospital floors near the injured teens.

Simmons knew if he and his team didn’t step in to talk to the teens and encourage them to stop fighting, there could be more bloodshed both in and out of the hospital that night.

Montgomery-Block, program manager of Sierra Health Foundation and The Center nonprofit service group, which oversees the campaign, immediately texted Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Bobby Davis, a member of the county steering committee that organized the Black Child Legacy Campaign. Within hours, Simmons and his team were inside. The ability to call on a law enforcement leader in times of crisis, Montgomery-Block said, has been critical.

“He said, ‘Of course, it’s the best thing I've ever been a part of,’ ” Montgomery-Block remembers Davis texting her. “That’s the captain of the sheriff’s department, and he ends it with #StopTheViolence. When you have that level of camaraderie, that’s a big deal.”

The late-night alliance is just one of dozens of successes Montgomery-Block said have been a direct result of the county’s greater involvement in solving everyday emergencies.

Inside each community center, county officials on staff, including representatives from Child Protective Services and the Department of Human Assistance, stand ready to handle whatever needs that come up, whether it’s housing vouchers or parenting classes.

“When the county became involved, it removed the red tape and allowed for really strong relationships,” Dye said. “Like Child Protective Services, now it’s just five steps and I’m in her office space.”

The change has sped up how quickly families can get food vouchers, secure housing or attend court-mandated parenting workshops, Lawrence said.

“DHA holds the purse strings to a lot of homeless assistance, so she’s the first door we knock on,” Lawrence said. “If it’s a family that has connections or ties to CPS, that’s another door we can knock on simply because they’re an open door.”

Looking ahead

Tanya Bean-Garrett wrestles with the same question each day: Would the Black Child Legacy Campaign have saved her son from his sudden and early death?

She had done everything the campaign is hoping to encourage in the county’s African American communities. She had lovingly raised four healthy boys in a house where the living room walls can barely be seen behind the layers of family photos, high school diplomas and childhood drawings. She had encouraged her children to stay in school and pursue college degrees. The man arrested in connection to Garrett’s death was a longtime family friend who regularly came to the house.

As the 2020 deadline for reducing death rates looms, Dye described much of the campaign’s work as “aiming in the dark.” If the life of a Sacramento youth such as Garrett could be so easily taken, how could they possibly guarantee the safety of Sacramento’s most vulnerable children?

As residents, community leaders and health experts head into their next fiscal year, L’Ecluse still worries about the uphill battle organizations have to climb to achieve their goals.

“How do we address some of the underlying causes that (are) generational?” L’Ecluse said. “That come from adverse childhood experiences, that come from the parent’s trauma as a child and how that cycle continues.”

Despite her son’s death, Bean-Garrett said she has no plan to move out of the neighborhood she knows so well she could walk the streets with her eyes closed. This place is where her son died, but it’s also where she sees the potential for hundreds of other African American children and young adults like him to live and thrive, even his alleged killer.

Since Garrett died, Bean-Garrett has started a new nonprofit called 21Reasons – a nod to his football jersey number – that will host youth events for local high schoolers and provide scholarships to college-bound students.

“I want our children to be bright,” Bean-Garrett said. “I want them to be funny. I want them to be serious. But I want them to be able to be them.”

Gavin McIntyre contributed to this story.

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