Helping Moms and Babies Celebrate A First Year

Cuyahoga County has had one of the highest rates for infant deaths in the country. Picture courtesy of blackgirlincle.com Photographer Shana Black.

By Shana Black (Funded by the Solutions Journalism Network)

Pregnancy is supposed to be a time when women “take it easy.” It’s a time when we recognize how day to day stresses and demands greatly impact a person’s health, and in this case the health of a baby as well. However, 2020 has proven to be anything but stress free.

Imagine if you were a pregnant woman in 2020. Think about the concerns you would have to make sure your family is safe, fed, and healthy.  Think about the challenges of coordinating working from home and having your children navigating online school.  Think about the concerns you’d have as you made your birthing plan, arrangements for childbirth classes, and the fear and uncertainty of whether you’d be delivering alone. 

Now think about this scenario, if you were pregnant and Black.  When COVID-19 kept us at home in March and April many Black people found that they were now classified as essential workers and had to continue to go to work.  In May, like many Americans, Black women watched another Black person, this time George Floyd, lose his life at the hand of a police officer. Since then, there has been a barrage of news stories and videos of black and brown faces, including young people, losing their lives, a call for equality,  justice and an opposing call and protests that Black lives don’t matter. 

Picture courtesy of blackgirlincle.com Photographer Shana Black.

The Pierce Family holding photos of  Christyan and Jayden Pierce who were born at 21 weeks and died minutes later.  Photo provided by Samantha Pierce

“Why do I fight so hard to bring these babies in the world, when you’re just going to kill them?”  cried Samantha Pierce of the Christyan Jayden Project, a local nonprofit that supports families experiencing infant loss, a member of First Year Cleveland’s PAIL committee. PAIL stands for Parent And Infant Loss. First Year Cleveland is a local organization that looks to decrease infant deaths in Cuyahoga County. Their mission is to identify the underlying issues contributing to infant death and create sustainable solutions to combat the problem.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the maternal health outcome data for Black and Hispanic women in the United States was one of the worst in the world.  Findings from the World Health Organization in 2018, identified the United States as the only country with an advanced economy that had increasing maternal mortality rates.  Cuyahoga County is among the worst in the country.  Cuyahoga County has had one of the highest rates for infant deaths in the country and in 2015 our county was the second-worst for infant deaths out of Ohio’s 88 counties, according to First Year Cleveland.

It Doesn’t Matter

When confronted with the data many assume that the outcomes are due to the number of women living in poverty. “They probably can’t afford good doctors or don’t have insurance,” is often the thought. Others tend to think that it’s a bad living situation, or because someone lives in a bad neighborhood, but in reality, it doesn’t make a difference.

The face of the maternal health crisis can be any black woman here in Greater Cleveland. She can live on the East or West side. She can be married or single. She can be affluent or poor. She can have private insurance, no insurance or be on Medicaid. She can have a college degree, have barely finished high school, or be a high school dropout. It really doesn’t matter. All pregnant black women in the county are at risk of having what is called a negative birth outcome. 

In fact, research shows black women with higher levels of education and higher professional positions are most at risk. The root cause of this disparity is the systemic racism that permeates our society in so many ways. The effect is a toxic level of stress from encountering microaggressions and covert racism that seems to never let up. 

Black Maternal Health – Who Lives, Who Dies

Nationally the Black Maternal Health Crisis focuses on who dies and who survives. Often it is the expectant mother passing away during or after childbirth, leaving her family to raise a new baby. On the other hand, it’s a once joyful expectant mom and dad mourning the loss of a baby that died in utero, during delivery or before their first birthday. 

Both are devastating situations for families and both have statistics that clearly show the racial disparity between black and white women and babies. 

COVID-19 causes a data void but offers some solutions

Preliminary data shows that the inequity of infant mortality between black and white babies has persisted throughout 2020 with the largest disparity taking place in April. 

This graph and chart was compiled based on data provided by First Year Cleveland for the Ohio Department of Public Health and Statistics and Informatics. 

To address the immediate needs of expectant mothers, First Year Cleveland applied for and received, a Rapid Response Grant from the Cleveland Foundation. With that grant, they were able to provide necessity kits that included blood pressure cuffs, scales, and access to food for expectant families.  They were also able to purchase iPads so that mothers could stay connected with family members during the delivery.

OUR WELLNESS NETWORK provides support for families. Photo provided by First Year Cleveland 

Additionally, the Parent And Infant Loss Committee (PAIL) began offering services through a new service called OWN, Our Wellness Network.  The network provides emotional, spiritual and emotional support by black therapists and counselors to black men and women who are new or expecting parents or are experiencing the loss of a baby. Katrice Jones, the director of the Racial Disparities & Health Equity Program at First Year Cleveland, stated that this network was formed after hearing from volunteers and families that they felt as if they had no one to talk to about their feelings and or couldn’t find a black therapist to support them when they were feeling the stress of systemic racist practices.

First Year Cleveland and the PAIL committee also decided to educate. They partnered with Stimuli Films to produce the short film, Toxic: A Black Woman’s Story.  The movie was filmed in Cleveland with local actors and chronicles a day in the life of a pregnant, black woman named Nina.  The audience watches Nina as she tries to balance her job as a lawyer, being a good wife and mother to her teenage son. 


Photo provided by First Year Cleveland

The hospital systems use this film as a training tool for employees. It is used to illuminate how any negative or stressful interaction between patients and staff could add undue stress and put a pregnancy in danger.  While created to be an educational tool for doctors, the film has gone on to play at film festivals across the country and been used by nonprofit organizations, and colleges to highlight inequities and micro-aggressions that still exist.  

To schedule an appointment or learn more about the services of Our Wellness Network (OWN) go to www.PAILconnect.org/own or call 1-888-505-7245

To learn more about the Christyan Jayden Project go to thechristyanjaydenproject.org  

To learn more about  First Year Cleveland go to www.firstyearcleveland.org/