Spring Board Meeting Recap: Spotlight on Maternal Health and Childhood Trauma

Our Spring Board meeting yesterday, hosted by Bill Sudow, cast attention on two health crises in the District—maternal mortality and the cascading negative effects of trauma on children.

The District’s maternal and infant mortality rates are twice the national average, and it is a tragedy mostly among low-income African American women and children. FC2 Trustee Maria Tildon (CareFirst), who moderated our first panel, asked what can be done. It is a complex problem and “there is no one single solution,” Stacey Stewart (March of Dimes) reminded us. But we do know that when cities and states zero-in on the problem, begin collecting more data and designing localized interventions, maternal mortality tends to fall. That’s what happened in California, for example.

DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said the DC government is “doubling down on efforts to lower maternal mortality.” They are working on increasing service touch points for mothers and their infants. Expectant moms need to be reached early on with prenatal care and kept in the health care system through delivery and 6 months after birth. In DC, too few African-American women, or 50 percent, receive prenatal care in their first trimester. For white women, 84 percent do.

Ebony Marcelle, who runs the midwifery program at Community of Hope, is on the front lines of this crisis. Her organization is already embedded in the local community and is unique in that it offers so many services under one roof—access to physicians, trauma specialists, prenatal coordinators and parenting coaching. It offers a whole support system for young mothers.

Our second panel was a compelling presentation by FC2 Trustee Judith Sandalow (Children’s Law Center) along with Michelle Palmer (Wendt Center for Loss and Healing) and Dr. Hope Rhodes (Children’s National Health System). They walked us through how trauma holds children back.

Trauma, whether it be a violent episode or relationship chaos at home, leaves children with toxic stress. Their “fight or flight” instinct becomes activated and doesn’t dissipate. What may appear as ADHD behavior at school is actually their brains protecting themselves from more trauma. It’s hard for these children to learn and focus. The toxic stress harms their health, too. They can become obese, develop premature cardiovascular disease or asthma.

We need, as a society, to focus on treating and healing trauma-induced toxic stress. The first step is making schools more trauma-sensitive. There could be more trauma counselors on staff and a more deliberate effort to help children develop trusting relationships with adults. Teachers could start the day by giving their students a hug and take extra steps to make them feel safe.