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NCDHHS receives over $4 million for maternal and infant health, especially in Black communities


The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Dorothea Dix campus, located in Raleigh, is pictured on Aug. 26, 2022.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services hosted a discussion on Sept. 21 to announce new federal funding to combat maternal mortality and improve maternal health, especially in traditionally underserved communities.

The Health Resources and Services Administration — a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — is providing the state this new funding through multiple grants.

The new funding, which adds up to more than $4 million, aims to expand access to maternity care, grow the workforce of nurse midwives, address maternal depression and provide community support during pregnancy and postpartum.

The roundtable discussion portion of the event happened after the grant announcement. Federal and state leaders, community members, advocates, clinicians and experts discussed the best methods to expand access to maternal care and address social supports vital to safe pregnancies.

“They were listening to ideas and suggestions from us that they would consider in their policymaking,” Sarah Verbiest, the director of the Jordan Institute for Families, said. “So there's an effort to be bidirectional with them learning from us and us being really happy to be getting some more resources to improve outcomes for mothers.”

More than $1.1 million each year for five years will go towards the Healthy Start Initiative, an organization providing leadership and advocacy to improve birth outcomes and family well-being.

This funding will focus specifically on Cumberland and Hoke counties because of their high Black infant mortality rate.

The funds will also be used to treat maternal depression and other behavioral health disorders in the NC Maternal Mental Health MATTERS Program. The five-year funding for $750,000 will help staff the North Carolina-Psychiatry Access Line's perinatal health component.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the maternal mortality rate for Black pregnant people was 2.6 times greater than their white counterparts in 2021. This disparity inspired Venus Standard, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine, to found Lived Experience Accessible Doula, known as LEADoula.

LEADoula's goal is to improve Black women’s maternal and birth outcomes by increasing their access to support from professionally trained Black doulas.

“It can change the narrative because it helps the birthing person have a voice, not a mouthpiece,” Standard said. “A voice that is able to say what she needs, say what she wants and get her voice listened to, because hearing and listening are two completely different things."

Black doulas who help Black mothers often are more trusted because of possible shared lived experience and cultural needs that might be overlooked by others and impact the birthing experience.

LEADoula graduated its first class of Black doulas in July 2021. 

It was also awarded a three-year grant from the Duke Endowment that will support the training of 120 new Black doulas, increasing access to doula services for Black pregnant people by 300 to 600 families per month.

Standard said that if a mother does not feel comfortable and understood throughout the pregnancy, there’s a chance they might not speak up for themselves, ask questions or continue their care after delivery.

“All cultures respond to something differently, but the signs and the symptoms are the same,” Standard said. “No matter what culture it is, they should be addressed, not ignored.”

Stephanie Devane-Johnson, co-principal investigator of LEADoula, said that while a lot of people and organizations may talk about maternal mortality, providing funding and tangible solutions is necessary to combat the crisis.

“The reason we’re in this position is because we've been doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results,” Devane-Johnson said. “We've got to think not necessarily outside the box, but inside the box and make things tailored specifically to a certain racial and ethnic group.”

@DTHCityState |

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