Black children were dying at an alarming rate in Sacramento County. Here’s how that’s changing

For two years, Sacramento mother Tiffany Garner was homeless, forced to carry all her possessions and baby supplies with her as she did errands – in her own words, “a hot mess.”

But then a social worker affiliated with the Meadowview nonprofit Focus on Family spotted her cousin and her belongings on the sidewalk and connected with Garner, an encounter that Garner said completely turned her life around.

Suddenly, she had a pregnancy coach, someone who would go “the distance” and ensure her children would not become part of a worrying statistic: From 2010 to 2015, black children died at a disproportionately high rate compared to other racial and ethnic groups in Sacramento County — more than twice the rate of white children and about three times the rate of Latino and Asian children.

To counter these grim statistics, a network of county and community groups launched a $26 million strategy called the Black Child Legacy Campaign in 2015, and the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors this week heard hopeful news.

A report presented to supervisors this week revealed generally positive early results in the campaign’s effort to reduce disparities in childhood deaths in the county by 2020.

Black children make up 10 percent of the county’s children and accounted for 15 percent of all child deaths in 2016, a decrease from 24 percent in 2015, according to new data from the Sacramento County Child Death Review Team.

In addition, the rate of black child deaths decreased 32 percent from 2015 to 2016, to 54.9 per 100,000 children, according to the Black Child Legacy Campaign report. In that same period, the overall child death rate in the county was 36.2 per 100,000.

“I’m so blessed for having these organizations in my life,” Garner, now housed, told the Board of Supervisors at its meeting Tuesday. Without her social worker’s help, she said, “I don’t know where I would be today,”

Three of four key causes of preventable deaths targeted by the campaign saw decreases among black children: From 2014 to 2016, infant sleep-related deaths went down from 2.8 per 1,000 births to 1.5; child abuse and neglect deaths decreased from 7.1 per 100,000 children to 4.5; and third-party homicides decreased from 4.5 per 100,000 children to 1.8, according to the BCLC report.

The fourth key cause of death – perinatal deaths – increased among black children from 3.2 per 1,000 births to 3.9 between 2014 and 2016, according to the BCLC report.

However, the disparity in perinatal condition deaths across races in Sacramento County decreased 17 percent, and overall black infant deaths decreased 45 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to the First 5 Sacramento Commission.

As part of the Black Child Legacy Campaign, seven neighborhood centers receive $120,000 annually through a county-funded steering committee. Each “incubator,” as they are called, then offers a variety of programs and services – case managers to access government services, nighttime youth-focused events, safe sleeping habits education, home visits, for example – to prevent black childhood deaths.

“I’ve never seen anybody walk around with a (Child Protective Services) shirt on,” said steering committee co-chair Chet Hewitt at the meeting, drawing laughs from the audience. “But you can go to a lot of cool places and see folks with the Black Child Legacy gear on at marches and celebrations.”

“We are all proudly displaying our connection to this particular work and our belief that we can change what has been a long history of disparity and death for black children here in Sacramento,” Hewitt said.

Candi Calhoun, with her 7-month-old daughter in tow, told supervisors she was pregnant in her third trimester when she met with members of Liberty Towers Church, the incubator lead in Foothill Farms and North Highlands. “I didn’t have no clothes, nothing for my baby, (but) they told me they could help me get the stuff.”

“They came and visited me in the hospital,” Calhoun told supervisors. “They came to my home to make sure she had everything when she arrived.”

“My heart is full of gratitude,” said Tina Roberts of the Roberts Family Development Center, the incubator for Del Paso Heights and North Sacramento. “The people in here, they do the work. … I really believe we are the model showing other cities how to do this.”

The meeting served as a victory lap for organizations involved in the Black Child Legacy Campaign after Supervisor Phil Serna in 2011 convened a blue-ribbon commission focused on disparities in deaths among black children.

The commission found that over a 20-year period, black children accounted for 25 percent of all perinatal deaths, 32 percent of all infant sleep-related deaths, 30 percent of child abuse and neglect homicides and 32 percent of all third-party homicides in Sacramento County. Black children accounted for 12 percent of the population during that same time, according to the report.

“I can’t point to another issue or initiative or effort that makes me more proud,” Serna said during the meeting. “There’s a lot of them that do make me proud, but, man. This is crazy good.”

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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