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New grantees bring innovative ideas to infant mortality initiative

A special series by Milwaukee Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families

When it comes to Milwaukee’s infant mortality crisis, there is good news and not so good news. Infant mortality–or the number of infants who die during their first year of life–is a major issue in the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee’s infant mortality rate is among the worst of the nation’s largest cities.

The good news: the Wisconsin Partnership Program (WPP) recently funded $2.5 million to support the Milwaukee Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families (LIHF). These funds will help empower local agencies to deal with this crisis by bringing new solutions to the communities they serve.

The Wisconsin Partnership emphasized five priority areas for funding initiatives to reduce infant mortality. Priority was given to projects that are evidence-based, address the LIHF Community Action Plan program recommendations and produce information on effective ways to reduce disparities. Program and service areas include:

1. Develop peer or social support networks for pregnant women and new mothers

2. Enhance prenatal care through a group prenatal care model

3. Expand maternal, infant and early childhood home visitation programs in targeted areas

4. Improve family access to utilization of primary health care

5. Improve family supports, including an increase in fatherhood involvement and transitional and family sustaining jobs

In the past, infant mortality initiatives have focused on mothers and expectant mothers. But research has shown that father involvement is linked to infant mortality.

In fact, a recent study by the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health and reported in the Journal of Community Health states “a significant proportion of infant deaths could be prevented if fathers were to become more involved.” The Milwaukee LIHF Community Action Plan has placed a strong emphasis on father involvement, consequently, a large percentage of the programs that were funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program are focused on strengthening African American families through father involvement. Twelve programs have been funded. (See sidebar for listing)

In addition to father involvement initiatives, grants have been awarded for programs that focus on variety of concepts such as trauma informed care, mental health and breastfeeding. These programs bring fresh perspectives to the efforts.

“An unparalleled aspect of the United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee (UNCOM) is our ability to work with families-within their neighborhoods throughout all stages of life, regardless of their life experiences,” said Tony Shields, executive director of UNCOM. “This initiative will allow UCOM agencies to increase their capacity to offer programming that nurtures families across a lifespan, from early childhood to seniors.”

Funding from the WPP will allow Mental Health America of Wisconsin (MHA) and its academic partner, the Zilber School of Public Health at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, to implement a one-year pilot feasibility project targeting low-income, uninsured/under-insured African American families who have been affected by mental illness.

“Research shows that stress and depression may be causing the unusually high rate of negative birth outcomes among African Americans so specialized outreach will be given to the zip codes in Milwaukee that have the highest incidence of infant mortality,” said Kristina Finnel, President/ CEO of Mental Health America of Wisconsin.

“Addressing the mental health of the parents, decreasing stress levels and providing a support system will hopefully increase healthy birth outcomes and decrease infant mortality in Milwaukee’s African American community. With this project, MHA will work to stabilize and support the mother’s mental health and wellness during pregnancy and after childbirth through intensive care management in the home.”

Walnut Way, Inc. and its partners at the Center for Urban Population Health, UW-Milwaukee Zilber School of Public Health and the YMCA Northside launched the Lindsay Heights Men’s Wellness Council in 2011. The council was designed as a space for African American men to explore the meaning of health, critical determinants of health and areas of action in their community.

They have been meeting for over 2 years now and initially focused on physical activity but quickly learned that a more holistic approach was needed to focus on emotional, mental and financial well-being.

“The discussions brought to light the tremendous isolation and pressure African American fathers and men experience, leading to their self-definition as “an island of one,” shared group facilitator Maanaan Sabir. The council provided the critical space needed to make social connections, negotiate life stressors and learn from male experiences. Key recommendations and an action plan were submitted and funded by the LIHF.

The purpose of this new project, No Longer an Island: Creating a Place-based Men’s Peer Outreach and Social Support Network, is to revive African American men and fathers as pillars of strength in families and communities through peer mentoring, social support, and community navigation. The project aim for men and fathers is to enrich their social networks, reduce their stress, and increase their family and community engagement and, ultimately, improve birth outcomes.

Breastfeeding is great for all newborns and mothers, but it’s even more important for babies born early (before 37 weeks of gestation). That’s because a pregnant woman’s body will automatically produce milk that’s specially designed to nourish a premature baby with extra calories, vitamins and protein. The live cells in breast milk that protect babies from infection can be even more important for premature babies because of the higher risk of infection.

The African American Breastfeeding Network’s (AABN) new funding will allow them to continue to address breastfeeding disparities within Milwaukee, while increasing awareness of the value of offering breast milk to babies. As a result, more African American moms will be supported in providing their babies with breast milk.

“Well we know it’s the first food for any human being. It’s the best nutrition,” said Dalvery Blackwell, co-founder and program manager of the AABN. “Mostly all doctors, pediatricians, major organizations, such as the World Health Organization, agree that breast milk, breastfeeding provides the best source of nutrition for babies and small children. For example the colostrum is the first milk that comes out; it’s immediately available after birth. It provides unequaled immunity against viruses and bacteria,” she said.

These are just a few examples of how organizations in Milwaukee are collaborating to address the root causes of infant mortality with funding from the Wisconsin Partnership Program. The key factors or the social determinants that contribute to infants dying before turning one are complex.

Solutions will require innovation and collaboration across sectors. It requires working together to strengthen families, improve access to health care and reduce poverty.

Milwaukee has a huge opportunity to improve birth outcomes. Babies should have birthdays. And with strong partnerships, innovative approaches and engaged residents, all things are possible.

Wisconsin Partnership Program – Milwaukee LIHF 2013 Grantees

Implementation Grants (up to $400,000 over three years)

Direct Assistance for Dads (DAD) Project: Through home visitation and one-on-one coaching, this project will provide direct services to fathers and fathers-to-be with the goal of increasing their involvement with their children and their partner, and ultimately to improve family and child health outcomes. Community Partner: City of Milwaukee Health Department

Healthy Parents, Healthy Babies (Healthy Next Babies): Working with families residing in Milwaukee’s ten poorest zip codes, this initiative aims to improve access to interconception care by emphasizing the role of both parents in developing care plans, accessing existing services and increasing provider collaboration. Community Partner: Aurora Health Care, Inc.

No Longer an Island: Creating a Place-based Men’s Peer Outreach and Social Support Network: Based in Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights neighborhood, the initiative seeks to develop a leadership and social support network that will increase engagement among African American fathers and men through peer mentoring and community health navigators. Community Partner: Walnut Way Corp.

The Young Parenthood Project: A Father Engagement Strategy for Healthy Families: This project aims to increase relationship-building skills and selfworth among African American men and their families by providing prenatal and support services for expectant fathers and young couples at risk for stress. Community Partner: Milwaukee Health Services, Inc.

Small Implementation Grants (up to $150,000 over three years)

Focus on Fathers Initiative: This initiative aims to engage and support noncustodial fathers in developing parenting skills and healthy relationships for co-parenting through home visitation and parent education, ultimately increasing father involvement in the lives of their children. Community Partner: Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)

Normalizing Breastfeeding: Building Social Support and Community Capacity: This initiative aims to increase breastfeeding initiation, duration and exclusivity rates by engaging pregnant women, expectant fathers and their families through health promotion, health education and social support programs. Community Partner: African American Breastfeeding Network

Striving to Create Healthier Communities Through Innovative Partnerships: This initiative is focused on improving access to quality prenatal care through the Birthing Project models as well as engaging fathers during the preconception, prenatal and interconception periods. Community Partner: Lovell Johnson Quality of Life Center, Inc.

UNCOM Initiative For Healthy Families: United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee (UNCOM), a collaborative of eight agencies, will develop a drop-in center for families experiencing stress and train all staff on trauma-informed care. Community Partner: United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee

Development Grants (up to $50,000 over two years)

Engaging African-American Fathers to Reduce Infant Mortality by Improving their Health Literacy: This project will add to the knowledge base of information that is sensitive to cultural and literacy needs of African American fathers, engage and train medical and nursing students to provide these fathers with culturally appropriate and literacy sensitive information and evaluate the effectiveness of communication. Community Partner: Planning Council for Health and Human Services, Inc.

Expecting Moms, Expecting Dads: This initiative will create a father-friendly prenatal care class that uses the evidence-based Centering Pregnancy curriculum and incorporates additional resources including 24/7 Dad and the YMCA’s Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood to help both parents understand the role and importance of a father in a child’s life. Community Partner: Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare – St. Joseph Foundation

Family Connectedness for New & Expectant Mothers: This project will build a referral system for high-risk new and expectant mothers in three Milwaukee neighborhoods and connect them with the mentorship, support and guidance they need to give their baby the best possible start. Community Partner: Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin

Strong Families Healthy Homes (SFHH) Extension – Pregnancy Pilot Program: This pilot is designed to be a preventive intervention for African American families coping with mental illness or substance abuse disorders. Classes and in-home mentoring will assist expectant parents in understanding how to meet their child’s needs with the goal of decreasing adverse childhood experiences and rates of infant mortality. Community Partner: Mental Health America of Wisconsin

The Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families (LIHF) is the centerpiece of a multi-year evidence-based program created by the Wisconsin Partnership Program and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health that is investigating and addressing the high incidence of African American infant mortality in the state.