County considers spending $6 million to reduce black youth deaths

About 250 people crowded into the chambers of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to support a plan aimed at reducing deaths among black children.

Holding signs saying “Our Children Are Dying” and “Black Lives Matter,” people in the crowd cheered and cried as they listened to speakers tell the board that the county has a moral responsibility to try to reduce a death rate for black children that is double the overall rate for children in the county.

“Good things come from saving a black life,” said Greg Jefferson, president of the Del Paso Heights Community Association, who led the crowd in spirited call and response, with the crowd repeating “black lives” again and again.

Supervisors are considering a plan that calls for spending about $6 million a year. It was recommended by a steering committee made up of community health care providers, social service workers, law enforcement officials and others, and follows up on a 2011 county review of 20 years of fatality statistics that found black children dying at twice the rate of other children.

Supervisor Phil Serna, who represents some of the Sacramento neighborhoods with the highest rates of death, has spearheaded the effort. “This is the most critical issue before this board,” he said.

Other supervisors indicated general support for the plan. The board will not take formal action until the plan’s individual components come up during budget discussions this summer.

The blueprint calls for funding to go to community-based organizations and county welfare and probation agencies to focus on the leading causes of death among black children: sleep-related infant deaths; homicide by parents, caretakers and others; and deaths related to perinatal conditions. The programs would involve education campaigns, direct services and improving community networks to address the problems.

The programs would focus on six neighborhoods with high death rates: Valley Hi/Meadowview, Arden Arcade, North Sacramento/Del Paso Heights, Oak Park, North Highlands/Foothill and Fruitridge/Stockton Boulevard.

Committee co-chairman Chet Hewitt said 81 percent of the deaths involving black children happened in these neighborhoods.

“This is a community in need,” he told supervisors. “That is most evident by the crowd behind me.”

Hewitt is president and CEO of Sierra Health Foundation, a private philanthropic organization in Sacramento. The plan calls for the foundation’s Center for Health Program Management and other community organizations to receive $1.75 million a year to implement the programs. “It is not our belief that the county can do this alone,” Hewitt said.

Paul Lake, the county director responsible for social services, agreed that community organizations would be central to the plan but added that Child Protective Services, probation and other county agencies would be involved.

Greg King, the head of a south Sacramento community organization, Always Knocking, put it another way: “Help us help ourselves to save our babies.”

The steering committee’s report found that homicide is less of a problem for black children in Sacramento County compared to black children across the state. However, when it comes to infants dying in their sleep or as the result of their conditions in the womb or soon after birth, the county’s death rates for black children were much higher than in other parts of the state, the report found.

As a result of that finding, much of the effort will focus on providing education and other services to new mothers, according to Lake and others involved in the effort.

Committee member Paris Dye echoed many other speakers when she said the time to respond is long overdue.

“We need to stop failing the community,” she said. “Children have been failed, and the fact that children are dead shows that we have failed.”

Diana Cassady, a public health professor at UC Davis, said she has conducted many studies finding disparities in health between various groups, and low-income blacks in the Sacramento area are at high risk.

“As a researcher, I’m here to tell you that you don’t need any more studies,” she said. “We need action.”

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee.