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Women's forum addresses infant mortality in Summit County

Women writing while seated

In 2017, the Women's Endowment Fund convened a group of nearly 100 health and social service professionals to discuss issues related to infant mortality in Summit County.

The 2017 Forum on Women and Girls, held at the American Red Cross in Akron, brought together experts, service providers and community leaders to talk about the causes surrounding infant deaths and to brainstorm potential solutions.

Experts from Summit County Public Health and the Minority Behavioral Health Group facilitated a conversation about the growing racial disparity between infant mortality rates in the African-American community and their white counterparts.

"Our black babies are dying at two times the rate of our white babies," said Shaleeta Smith, community health supervisor at Summit County Public Health, who cited statistics showing more than 12 out of every 1,000 black babies die before their first birthday.

Dr. Tania Lodge, clinical director of the Minority Behavioral Health Group, spoke about the importance of addressing the root causes of infant mortality, pointing to poverty as a key factor.

Woman takes notes during discussion circle

"Cyclical poverty particularly affects the African-American community, and this leads to chronic maternal stress, which leads to premature birth, which leads to infant mortality," she said. "It's imperative that we take a systemic approach (instead of applying) Band-Aids over large wounds."

Participants later met in small groups to discuss the barriers that prevent women from accessing needed services, including transportation, employment, awareness of resources and personal health. They also identified key stakeholders and potential ways to overcome those barriers through changes in policy, community outreach and targeted funding.

"Cultural barriers are really important," said Jolene Lane, chief diversity officer at the University of Akron. "We need policies to bridge the gaps between those who are affected and those who can help."

During one particularly poignant panel session, guests at the forum heard from two young mothers who have personally experienced infant loss. The women shared how homelessness and poverty are intricately tied to infant mortality, saying they didn't find out about the resources available to them until it was too late.

Women sitting in discussion circle

"It took me losing my baby to know about those things," one woman said. "Now I try to use my experience to help other girls, because there's just a lack of knowledge."

"As a community, we've spent a lot of time and money talking about infant mortality and dealing with the challenges of this painful topic," said Laurie Zuckerman, the forum's facilitator. "Much is happening, and in spite of that, there's still a lot left to go. We are here to move the needle even a little bit."

As a result of this forum, in 2018 the Women's Endowment Fund awarded $50,000 in grants to organizations that help combat this problem in Greater Akron. See the full list of grants.

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