CLEVELAND — Ohio’s infant mortality rate is steadily declining, but the numbers are barely budging for black infants. According to state and local officials, the numbers are still three times higher than the rate for white babies.
Bernie Kerrigan, executive director of First Year Cleveland, says the problem is racism.
“If you have racism in every step whether at your workplace, at your education place, at anywhere you go...that toxic stress is negatively impacting [mothers] and causing babies to die,” Kerrigan said.
Kerrigan’s team released infant mortality numbers from 2019. They show 120 infants died before their first birthday in 2019. That’s nearly 9 out of every 1,000 births. Of that 120 deaths, 85 of them were black infants and 28 were white. In 2018, 81 black infants died compared to 26 white infants.
“If we don't change the systems that serve people of color, we will never get the results we need to be at which is a 6.0 infant mortality rate,” Kerrigan explained.
According to Richard Stacklin, data analyst for the Cuyahoga County board of Health, agrees.
“Unfortunately, when you look at the trend among the black/white infant mortality ratio, it’s unfortunately trending upwards in the last couple of years when you compare it to 2009, 2013,” he said.
Stacklin says the top causes of infant death within Cuyahoga County are prematurity, birth defects and sleep-related deaths.
Samantha Pierce tells News 5 she experienced infant mortality in 2009. She and her husband were pregnant with twins.
“We were not expecting twins,” she said.
Pierce says she was five months pregnant when they noticed something was wrong.
“I started leaking fluids, but I didn't know what it was,” she explained. “I thought as most black women think, I’ve already had a healthy baby. I don’t know what this is, but I’m sure I’m fine.”
Pierce eventually went to the hospital and delivered her twin boys, Christyan and Jayden.
But they did not survive.
“When Christyan came out he gave a yelp and it just [makes] you wonder why a baby could be born alive and have no chance to live,” she said holding back tears. “He lived for about 45 minutes.”
Pierce struggled trying to cope without her boys. She says her body was constant reminder of loss. At one point, she referred to her stomach as a tomb. The desire to get rid of her pregnancy weight and achieve a healthier lifestyle sparked her passion for fitness through her personal brand, Renegade Soul.
“My health was actually on the decline. I was on blood pressure pills and stuff like that. The doctor was like you have to exercise,” she said.
Pierce is now a certified personal trainer at Voltage Training and Fitness Center.
She has an 18-year-old son named Ethan and twins, Caedyn and Camryn. She says she hopes sharing her story helps other women.
“It's important to know that you’re not by yourself," she said.
The state is actively working to push more programs to help expecting mothers before and after giving birth. According to a press release, Governor DeWine formed the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Home Visitation to explore ways to increase access to proven home visiting services. Home visiting services are voluntary programs that serve pregnant women, new mothers, and children up to age three in their own homes. Home visiting services can help reduce infant mortality, improve school-readiness, and give parents the skills they need to help their children be healthy, happy, and ready to learn.
Governor DeWine also championed increasing funding for Ohio’s home visiting programs in the 2020-2021 state budget, investing an additional $30 million over the biennium and bringing total state funding for home visiting to $70 million over two years.
Karrigan says First Year Cleveland is working to spark racial change within the community, workforce, schools and health care. Their goal is to have no racial inequities between black and white babies by 2025.