By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Today, in Sacramento, the Black Child Legacy Campaign (BCLC) is practically a household name, but sadly there was a time when the deaths of local Black children didn’t get all that much attention. 

The Sacramento OBSERVER recently spoke to Chet P. Hewitt, President and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation and The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, who has helped drive policy and move forward with targeted intervention.

Q. The Black Child Legacy Campaign set out to reduce African American child deaths 10-20 percent by 2020. Can you give some background?

A. After the 2011 Child Death Review revealed that for 20 years, Black children have been dying at two to three times the rate of other children, Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna decided it was really time to act aggressively to change that trajectory. That led to the Blue Ribbon Commission on African American Child Deaths and then the report that came out of the Steering Committee on the Reduction of African American Child Deaths and then, the programmatic work, which is the Black Child Legacy Campaign. It really does seek to take a ‘social determinants of health’ approach to deal with the multifaceted set of challenges that lead to disproportionate mortality rates among Black children. We are thinking about not only access to healthcare, but the effects of poverty on Black children, the effects of trauma and exposure to violence on Black children and the long term effects of systemic racism, and how they show up in a number of places that also impact the health and well being of Black children, Black families and Black communities.

Q. It seemed to take other folks forever to take notice that our babies, our children, were dying. Has it been equally hard convincing Black people to do the work that’s needed?

A. I’ve been very pleased by the incredible take up rate on this work. There are many challenges that we as African Americans, the Black community, have but when we talk about children, it is not all that difficult to get people together to really struggle to figure out what can be done. Even when we’re battling some pretty pernicious and long-term social and economic forces. When we saw the data, which was not a surprise to many people, folks said, ‘What are we going to do about it?’

I think the thing people were surprised about most was the fact that we were successful in pushing the County and the City to join with us to establish a set of community-led interventions to address the set of challenges that we had in front of us.

Q: Has that attention and investment paid off? What are some of the “wins” you’ve seen?

A. We’ve had a 25% drop in Black child deaths between 2014 and 2017, which are the two years where we have the best data. For 28 months we went without a single homicide for anyone under the age of 18 within the city of Sacramento. That was the first time anyone’s ever seen that happen. Not only have we reduced the overall number of Black children who have died from preventable causes, we have reduced the disparity between Black and White children. That’s an enormous achievement because I’ve seen numbers go down, but Black children are still two to three times worse off in terms of their representation. In this case, the level of disparity, not just the overall number of individuals, has also changed. 

When we did our safe sleeping assessment work with the large public health systems, not only do Black children born in hospitals get a safe baby sleeping assessment, but all children have those same assessments, and all children who don’t have a safe place to sleep will receive a crib or some other tool to create a safe sleeping environment for that particular family, not just Black families.

So what we’ve shown is that, yes, focusing on disparities makes a difference. When you have good policy interventions, and good practice interventions, it helps all children as well. This effort led by the Black community, led by Black institutions, crafted to be a community-driven intervention has had an impact in a way that we typically counted reduction in the number of Black children who would have died, but it’s also had the upside effect of creating a better health and safety net for all.

Q. The data is from four years ago. What’s the outlook now?

A. We continue to see declines. Now some of that has been slow because of the pandemic. We’ll be seeing the 2019 data soon. We believe that that infrastructure, which was designed similarly to prevent Black child deaths, or reduce mortality around those four issues — perinatal conditions, safe sleeping, child abuse, and neglect, and third party homicides — while we’ve seen some challenges with that, which we can attribute to the pandemic, what we have also seen on the positive side, is that by building out that infrastructure, it has now been able to be an effective intervention for things we did not foresee when we started this work.

 The same seven CLOs (Community Led Organizations that do the work of the BCLC in the focus neighborhoods) are points of distribution for food networks, they are testing sites in communities of color, serving anyone in that community, not just African American individuals. They are some of our vaccine sites as well, because what we built through BCLC is a community that will be strengthened through BCLC. We have very powerful service distribution, and community support infrastructure that has met the needs beyond what we will be and what they were conceived to do when we were launching the Black Child Legacy Campaign. We’re doing some incredible, incredible things for children and for families, beyond the very important work of reducing mortality rates for Black children. 

Q: Who are the standouts in this effort?

A. BCLC is an all-star team. Ms. Jackie Rose in Meadowview, to South Sac Christian Center in South Sacramento, the Urban League in Oak Park and Mutual Assistance Network in Arden Arcade, the Roberts Family Development Center in Del Paso Heights, Liberty Towers in the Foothill Farms area and, of course, Building Healthy Communities that works in the Fruitridge community. This is the dream team of African American groups who are involved in this type of work. 

They are all doing some pretty stellar work, because BCLC has gotten national attention. We’ve had people who have asked us (how we did it,) because they’ve never seen these impacts before, where you’ve actually seen the Black death rate of children decline as deeply as it has in Sacramento. This program is being replicated in Fresno and in Los Angeles. It’s previous director was asked to come and present at a meeting by now Vice President Kamala Harris, and the National Association of County Supervisors presented it with an award for its achievements. There are national foundations we’ve been in conversation with, who are also writing up stories about how a community-led intervention designed, managed, implemented, and monitored by the Black community is having an effect that no other intervention that was designed outside of communities, as most are, has ever had in relation to this level of achievement, in terms of reducing Black child mortality. It is simply unheard of. 

Q. What’s needed to maintain that momentum?

A. From a historical perspective, it was funded for four years, it was extended for an extra year and now, the County is committed to three more years, so we’re going to be around for a while. The strategies that we built, the new science, the new technologies that have been derived from community experiences, need to be adopted by the public institutions. We need to continue to fund this work going forward. 

The public institutions who are initially charged with doing what the community has done, need to continue to see the community as a partner in this work going forward as part of its sustainability so that it can be around long beyond whatever funding end date you could possibly have.  We’re going to continue to advocate for it — we as a community — to make sure that the public system is responding to our needs. We have the data to prove that it has been effective and that will help in its sustainability as well. 

Q. What else is in store for the campaign and the community?

A. I expect to not only to see BCLC stay around in Sacramento, but I think you’re going to continue to see this work moving forward, as BCLC expands. There’s our new partnership with Kaiser to bring back Black doulas and midwives, the incorporation of grandmothers and all that wisdom that will help young mothers understand what it means to be the best mother you could possibly be and access to support and services that families and children need to be healthy. Black Child Legacy is not a moment, it is a movement and we expect that movement to continue and not have an end date at all.