Sacramento County moves to save black lives

Jeff vonKaenel

How much is a human life worth? What resources should we dedicate to protecting our children? What should we do if, when we do nothing, more than 800 of our community's children will die over the next 20 years? What should we do if a single group is nearly twice as likely to lose a child than the community as a whole?

With a community effort, how many children could we save?

These are the questions that were raised by the Sacramento County Child Death Review Team report that studied the 816 children who died in Sacramento County between 1990 and 2009. The report zeroed in on the disproportionate number of black children who die prematurely. While these children represent 12 percent of the child population, they represent 22 percent of child fatalities.

While many would look at these grim statistics as an unfortunate aspect of life in 21st century America, Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna saw the numbers differently. Serna often sees things differently than other elected officials.

There are some public officials who hope to run for higher office. They are always looking for issues that will take them there. There are some cynical public officials who focus on channeling resources toward “their people.” And then there are those idealists who believe that government can make a real difference in people’s lives, and that our community’s best side can be expressed through government. Serna is such an idealist.

Serna believed that it would be possible, with properly allocated resources, to make a difference and save lives. Serna believed we could reduce the number of children who would die because of deaths related to prenatal conditions, sudden infant death syndrome and homicides related to child abuse and neglect.

With Serna’s leadership, things started to happen. The disproportionate number of black child deaths was no longer just a sad number. It was a benchmark number that our community needed to reduce. First 5 Sacramento Commission got involved. Sierra Health Foundation got involved. A task force was formed. A strategic plan was developed.

The plan, “African-American Children Matter: What We Must Do Now,” focused on the neighborhoods with a disproportionate amount of child deaths. This plan will require many community partners and multiple approaches to solve the problems.

But a plan without resources is not an effective plan. So, last week, 300 people packed the board of supervisors meeting to ask for funding, and $1.5 million annually for five years was granted. These resources are now available for an engaged community that has a plan.

We will not know the names of the children who will not die. We cannot know which funeral did not happen because of better prenatal care. We cannot know which baby did not stop breathing in her crib. We cannot know which child will not be fatally abused.

But with this plan, and with these resources that have been allocated, many of our community’s children will now be saved.

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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.