U.S. grants help Philly-area agencies help hundreds of moms-to-be

     Barretta Freeman of Chester, with one of her children, is a pastparticipant in the Healthy Start program in DelawareCounty. (Image courtesy of Crozer-Keystone Health System)

    Barretta Freeman of Chester, with one of her children, is a pastparticipant in the Healthy Start program in DelawareCounty. (Image courtesy of Crozer-Keystone Health System)

    Programs to support pregnant women and their families are scaling up to expand their services to hundreds more women in Delaware County and Philadelphia.

    New federal grants will go to the city of Philadelphia, the Maternity Care Coalition and Crozer-Keystone Healthy Start.

    Christina Matthews is set to deliver baby No. 3 in two weeks. The Chester Township mom, who is  single, said this time around she’s getting support from a caseworker at Crozer-Keystone Healthy Start.

    “Financially, I was struggling,” Matthews said.

    The program provided a crib for the new baby, and Matthews’ caseworker checks in several times a week to make sure the 24-year-old has a way to get to all her prenatal appointments.

    “If can make it, I’ll go and catch the bus — public transportation — but if I need help or if I need resources, she’s taken me a couple of times and even given me tokens to get there when I didn’t have money to get there,” Matthews said.

    “Infant mortality” rates mark the number of babies who die before their first birthday. The new federal funding is designed to prevent infant deaths and improve birth outcomes.

    In the city of Chester, the infant mortality rate for African-American babies is nearly three times the national average. So, in Delaware County, the funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will support parents and babies who live in Chester and nearby communities, including Upland, Eddystone, Woodlyn, Parkside and Marcus Hook.

    The infant mortality rate for black babies in the city of Chester is 15 infant death per thousand births. The national average is 6.5 infant deaths per thousand.

    “That is actually a success story,” said Crozer-Keystone Healthy Start program director Joanne Craig. “When Healthy Start first applied for this funding 17 years ago, the infant mortality and morbidity rate was closer to 23 infant deaths per thousand.”

    Craig and her staff have a long list of services to offer. One focus is “pre-conception planning” to ensure that a woman is healthy before she becomes pregnant.

    “If possible, she needs not to be smoking or drinking, she should be living a stress-free life, she should not be in a violent situation, she should have access to adequate food, to adequate housing,” said Craig. “That’s really what’s working, and that’s been the work of Healthy Start.”

    “People are calling this Healthy Start 2.0, that is because it’s integrating new scientific information about women’s health — how you arrive to pregnancy to be healthier,” said JoAnne Fischer, executive director of the Maternity Care Coalition.

    “We know that in Philadelphia women arrive to pregnancy sicker — diabetes, obesity, hypertension, behavioral health issues. This program will allow us to really not only help women prenatally but invest in their health until their baby is 2 years old,” she said.

    The Maternity Care Coalition in Philadelphia has been supporting pregnant women for decades. When a health educator sits with a client on the couch, she notices things that are often missed during a doctor’s office visit, said Kathrin Brellochs, director of public health programs.

    For instance, often a pediatrician will recommend that a baby get “tummy time” — play and interaction with a parent on the floor. During a home visit, an educator can see if there are barriers to that prescription.

    Are there holes in the floor? Are there roaches in the home? Is it safe for a baby to be on the floor?

    “By knowing that, we can try to intervene and can come up with alternatives to that,” Brellochs said.

    With the new federal money, Maternity Care Coalition will serve an additional 500 pregnant women, parents and their babies each year. Crozer-Keystone Healthy Start plans to add another 400 participants.

    Disclosure: JoAnne Fischer, executive director of the Maternity Care Coalition, is an emeritus member of the WHYY community advisory board.

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