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Protecting Children, Nurturing Familes

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Leon County infant deaths price tag

March 14, 2008

By Jennifer Portman - Democrat Senior Writer

Nailing down exactly how much is spent to reduce infant deaths in Leon County is tricky. So many factors affect whether babies survive their first year — such as moms' overall health, prematurity and parent education.

But here's an estimate: Programs that deal most directly with the issue here spend about $2.2 million a year in mostly state and federal money.

The largest chunk — about $680,000 — is spent on the area's Healthy Start program, which tries to ensure that the most at-risk moms and babies have the skills and resources to thrive — or at least survive. Last year, about 3,900 mothers and infants in Leon received services through the county Health Department as part of its contract with the Capital Area Healthy Start Coalition.

"If we save one baby it was worth the whole year's effort," said coalition Executive Director Ann Davis.

Public-health officials know, based on screenings supposed to be completed on every pregnant woman in the area, that they should serve more than twice as many moms and babies. But the state and federal money the coalition receives covers only 46 percent of the need.

Still, 10 Health Department social workers juggle an average of 70 cases each. Spread so thin, they have to concentrate on the most critical cases.

County Health Director Homer Rice said he wishes they could see every at-risk woman — but "we just can't do that with the caseload we have."

The Healthy Families Leon program picks up some of the slack. With funding from Florida's Ounce of Prevention Fund, it spends about $300,000 a year to provide intensive services for 91 Leon County families.

The main goal of the program, administered by the Brehon Institute for Human Services, is to prevent child abuse and neglect. But the weekly in-home visits by social workers, which begin before the mom has her baby, ward off many of the other reasons babies die.

"We aim to get our families in as early on in the pregnancy as possible," said Pam Robinson, who heads the program's Gadsden County office, which spends an additional $400,000 serving 153 families.

Since 2000, not one infant involved in the program has died, said Brehon Executive Director Jackie Malone.

"We have prevented hundreds and hundreds of tragedies, including infant deaths," said Malone, whose group also runs the Brehon House in Tallahassee for homeless pregnant women.

Bond Community Health Center has seen similar results. For three years, Leon County has given the clinic $350,000 to pay for a part-time obstetrician and pediatrician. None of the babies of the 3,000 low-income women who've been served by the program has died, said Executive Director J.R. Richards.

Funding for that program is set to run out in September. Richards has been searching for other sources to keep it going.

"Hopefully, the county finds it in its heart to support this program," he said. "For them to take it away would say we don't really care about this infant-mortality issue."

Dr. James Stockwell, chairman of the county's Health Care Advisory Board, says the county can't shoulder the burden alone. The county is slashing its budget, and voters seem in no mood to give more.

If the community can agree on an action plan to do more to combat infant deaths — and the racial gap that sees black babies dying four times more than white babies — most agree money will have to come from somewhere other than government.

"Sometimes you can attract grants," Stockwell said. "The more organized you are, the more likely you are to bring in more dollars."

Richards and others worry that all the focus on the issue won't bring any tangible results.

"Sometimes you deal with so much talk and no action," he said. "Hopefully, that's not what this is going to be."

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