Child deaths in Sacramento

Jeff vonKaenel

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna mentioned to me that his First 5 blue-ribbon commission was examining the disproportionate number of African-American child deaths in Sacramento County. I expressed some interest, and he suggested I come by a community meeting at the Oak Park Community Center on Monday, June 18. I said I would.

So, on a very warm summer evening last week, about 50 of us met to discuss the high number of young people, especially African-American youth, who are dying each year in our community. At my table, there were six African-American professional women, county official Bruce Wagstaff, and former California Health and Human Services Agency secretary Grantland Johnson and his wife, Charlot Bolton.

We learned that there were 3,633 young people in Sacramento County under the age of 17 who died during the last 20 years. Half of these were children died from medical conditions. While tragic, these deaths probably couldn’t have been prevented.

But then we learned about the other half. The “third-party homicides, infant sleep-related deaths, child abuse and neglect, homicides and suicides.” It’s hard to understand how we can let this happen to our children. Of course, these deaths are much higher in the poor parts of Sacramento. And while African-American children represent 12 percent of our population, they make up 22 percent of all child deaths.

After hearing the presentation, we were asked for input. Our group was not surprised by the data, but we certainly weren’t happy about it. Words like “shock” and “outrage” were uttered; the most commonly heard word was “sad.”

Sad was how I felt. Frankly, this was somewhat unusual for me, because these types of statistics usually make me mad instead. But I felt so sad for the families, and I couldn’t stop thinking how I would feel if one of my kids was included in the group of 3,633.

Earlier that day, I’d read a Wall Street Journal story that Mitt Romney was endorsing the House Republican plan to slash social spending, especially health programs, so he could turn around and give more tax breaks to the rich. This story made me mad rather than sad. But at the Oak Park table, it was sorry I felt, that instead of saving some of these little ones, we might elect leaders willing to let more children die.

There will be more public meetings held to get community input on these local child-death numbers. I suggest that you attend. Sadness is not always a bad thing—sometimes it can remind you of what is important and what is not important.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.