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Helping Young Single Mothers -- and the Babies They'll Raise

Through counseling and training, Black Infant Health Program battles some sobering trends.

June 28, 2004|Cynthia Daniels | Times Staff Writer

When Eleisa Groomes discovered she was pregnant at 18, she just couldn't accept the new responsibility thrust upon her. She avoided her parents, hung out with friends who smoked and drank and, as she would recall later, did all she could to take her mind off the baby.

Then, when she was four months pregnant, she joined the Black Infant Health Program and, with its help, gave birth to a boy who avoided becoming another grim statistic.

In Los Angeles County, California and nationwide, black infants are more than twice as likely as other babies to die before their first birthday, according to the California Department of Health Services and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And black babies are more than twice as likely to have a birth weight of less than 3 pounds, 4 ounces.

Through counseling and training, the Black Infant Health Program, a statewide initiative, tries to combat those trends. It teaches women like Groomes to stop running from the reality of being a single mother.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 30, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 120 words Type of Material: Correction
Black infants -- An article in Monday's California section about the Black Infant Health Program dropped words from a sentence. The story said that even if an African American woman received prenatal care, she would "still have a baby twice as likely to die before its first birthday, when compared with a white woman who received no prenatal care." The sentence should have said that an African American woman who received early prenatal care would "still have a baby nearly twice as likely to die before its first birthday, when compared with a white woman who received late or no prenatal care." These statistics, attributed to Dr. Michael Lu, should have been attributed to the National Center for Health Statistics.

"I had a lot of fears about being a young mother," said Groomes, who joined the program in South Los Angeles almost two years ago. "I was scared to face the reality of being pregnant and having to take care of him. But when I went to Black Infant Health, they made me start facing these problems.... They care and they show it."

She also learned the basics: what to do if her son developed a fever, how to put him down so he wouldn't choke if he spit up, how to breastfeed. This was all new to Groomes, whose contact with babies had been limited to changing her sister's diaper.

With the program's help, Groomes belatedly adopted a healthy lifestyle -- eating a proper diet and getting bed rest after doctors warned her that she faced a difficult pregnancy. It worked. When her son, Elijah, was born almost two years ago, he was healthy and weighed 7 pounds.

"Eleisa's participation helped her to have a full-term baby," said Cyrail Smith, Groomes' community health outreach worker. "We helped her weed out things that would worry her more and gave her more of a focus with her and the baby."

Dr. Michael Lu, a professor at UCLA's School of Public Health and Medicine who researches racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes, suggests that social factors, such as stress and racism, throughout a black woman's life might play a large part in the racial disparities.

According to his research, an African American woman who received prenatal care would still have a baby twice as likely to die before its first birthday, when compared with a white woman who received no prenatal care. That holds true for black women who do not smoke compared with white women who do and black women who possess college degrees versus white women who do not.

"This has been going on for a very long time," Lu said. "And unfortunately, despite medical advances and physiological advances, we haven't done much on closing the gap."

The Black Infant Health Program has attempted to close that gap since it was founded in 1989, and now teaches prenatal and infant care in 14 California counties. During the 2002-03 fiscal year, the program's Los Angeles County locations served 3,662 women, infants and children. About 320 mothers are served by the program in South Los Angeles.

For mothers who need more than baby help, the program provides job and housing referrals, bus and subway tokens to travel to and from appointments, and free items, such as parenting books and diaper bags. Many women must learn to help not just their babies, but themselves.

On a cool Wednesday in May, six women sat scattered throughout a conference room in the program's South Los Angeles office. Some rubbed their bellies, some had barely begun to show their pregnancy. The class was one part self-improvement, two parts prenatal care.

"Can anyone tell me -- what is self-acceptance?" asked the health educator consultant teaching the class.

The room was silent. Then two half-answers were blurted out: "accepting who you are" and "accepting yourself."

The women, who had recently joined the program, remained guarded and did not reveal much about their feelings. But half an hour later, the discussion turned to nutrition, and the women started chiming in.

"With my daughter, I didn't drink milk at all, but this time I'll eat cereal every day," one mother-to-be said with pride.

"Well, I like to eat ice cream," whispered another as if it were a sin.

"I'm not a milk person, but they said broccoli gives you calcium too."

"They just gave me calcium pills."

These were the kinds of conversations -- the shared sense of responsibility and support -- that brought Angela Barnes back to the South Los Angeles program when she discovered she was pregnant with her sixth child. Barnes, who had attended the program three years earlier when she was pregnant with her daughter, was experiencing guilt and shame about being an unmarried, single, Christian mother. She also said she suffered from a lack of family support.

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