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Wichita Group Working To Lower Infant Mortality Rate In Communities Of Color

Sapphire Garcia-Lies founded the Wichita Birth Justice Society in 2020. She's also a doula who helped with the delivery of these three infants.
Courtesy photo
Sapphire Garcia-Lies founded the Wichita Birth Justice Society in 2020. She's also a doula who helped with the delivery of these three infants.

The Wichita Birth Justice Society, which helps parents and infants of color, is preparing to expand its services.

An organization that helps parents and infants of color in Wichita is preparing to expand its services thanks to a recent $50,000 donation from the Kansas Health Foundation.

Sapphire Garcia-Lies founded the Wichita Birth Justice Society in 2020. She said she was galvanized to do so after her own daughter died in utero nine months into her pregnancy.

She was concerned that her baby was moving less, but her doctor told her not to worry.

“Because he told me that, by the time I went to the hospital, it was too late,” Garcia-Lies said. “She was wrapped up tightly in her umbilical cord, her blood supply had cut off, and she had no heartbeat.”

Garcia-Lies’ story is just one among a national trend of parents and infants of color dying or experiencing life-threatening complications more often than white parents and infants.

In Sedgwick County, for example, Black infants are more than twice as likely to die, according to data from 2019. Nationally, Black mothers are three times more likely to die after giving birth.

Sedgwick County has been working to decrease infant mortality across all races, but only non-Hispanic white infant deaths have declined below the goal of 5 deaths per 1,000 live births. Meanwhile, the rate among Hispanic births is 6.4 and the rate among non-Hispanic Black births is 10.7.

There are individual adjustments parents can make, such as taking adequate amounts of folic acid or eating enough healthy foods. But Garcia-Lies said systemic causes need more attention.

“We cannot reasonably tell a pregnant mother that she needs to eat fresh fruits and vegetables to prevent her preeclampsia if she lives in a food desert and she doesn’t have a vehicle,” she said.

Until systemic bias, including in medical settings, is adequately addressed, the Wichita Birth Justice Society is stepping in by developing a neighborhood doula advocates program. Garcia-Lies said it will start providing sliding-scale and no-cost doulas to parents of color in September or October.

“And what the doula will do is help support that family through the process of pregnancy, birth and postpartum with not just social support, but culturally affirming social support,” Garcia-Lies said. “All of our doulas are resourced from the zip codes and neighborhoods that are most affected by these disparities. And they are trained to be experts on supporting parents through the labor process.”

The goal is for parents of color to have advocates who look like them and can be trusted to provide information regarding body autonomy, informed consent and the rights and options during labor. Garcia-Lies said medical interventions that are convenient for the provider — like inductions and cesarean sections — can lead to more complications for the parent and child.

For example, she said an induction caused by Pitocin can lead to fetal distress, which might then lead to another intervention: a C-section.

“Our hospital system, not really having been designed for natural childbirth, tends to skew toward interventions,” Garcia-Lies said. “And so people generally are not well informed on what all of their options are with these interventions or on what the side effects of them could be.”

So, the Wichita Birth Justice Society champions natural births, while still leaving room for medical interventions if necessary, as long as families are well informed. Through its Birth Workers of Color Mentorship Group, the organization is trying to increase and retain the number of Black, indigenous and Hispanic birth workers in Wichita.

Garcia-Lies said the resources put into the research about racial disparities in infant mortality should now be more focused into proactive change.

“You cannot put the same energy into picking up the pieces that you can to preventing the deaths from ever occurring,” Garcia-Lies said. “I want to see these disparities completely eradicated by the next generation. There's no excuse for them.

"If we can give white families great outcomes, we can give Black and brown families great outcomes, too. And we must.”

Katelynn McIlwain is a senior at the University of Missouri majoring in journalism (with a magazine writing emphasis) and minoring in digital storytelling. When she’s on campus, she works as an intern at the MU News Bureau and as a resident advisor for MU Residential Life. She is also a member of the Alpha Omega campus ministry.