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Austin collaborative receives $1 million grant to improve health of pregnant women of color

Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman
Giving Austin Labor Support is an on-call service that provides doulas to moms in need.

Merck for Mothers and the Pritzker Children’s Initiative are giving $1 million to Austin's Maternal Health Equity Collaborative to help improve outcomes for Black mothers before, during and after birth.

The three-year grant is part of the pharmaceutical company's $500 million global program called Merck for Mothers and its Safer Childbirth Cities Initiative. Austin is the 20th city to have a nonprofit organization receive a grant and the first in Texas.

The Maternal Health Equity Collaborative is made up of Black Mamas ATX, Mama Sana Vibrant Woman, Giving Austin Labor Support and the Healing Hands Community Doula Project, groups that provide pregnancy, labor and post-pregnancy support to women of color and other vulnerable populations. It also includes Hand to Hold, which focuses on supporting parents of premature and medically fragile children, and Partners in Parenting, which provides support groups for parents of newborns.

Black, Hispanic mothers face more complications

In a 2018 study by the Texas Department of State Health Services, Black women in Texas had a pregnancy-related mortality rate 2.3 times higher than white women. A 2020 study by the department showed 89% of all pregnancy-related deaths in Texas could have been prevented, and Black and Hispanic mothers had higher rates of severe maternity complications than white mothers.

This kind of collaborative was what Merck for Mothers was looking for in a grantee, said Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet, the executive director of Merck for Mothers. "We're so excited about the collective action that this initiative is," she said. 

These groups came together and formed the collaborative in April 2020, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were having to shift the way they serve their communities because of pandemic restrictions at hospitals, which limited visitors, including labor support professionals known as doulas, and the need to provide virtual support groups and turn in-person visits into virtual ones.

How the grant money will help Austin moms

The grant money will be held by the Austin Community Foundation, and it will focus specifically on providing Black women with child care for maternity care doctor visits, during labor and while in the hospital, during post-pregnancy visits, and when women need to return to the hospital because of complications.

Black Mamas ATX is one of the groups in the Maternal Health Equity Collaborative.

When the collaborative did a needs assessment, child care was where it found a huge gap, said Giving Austin Labor Support Executive Director Morgan Miles. She ran through a couple of scenarios: A mom with older children could go into labor, but if she brings her children to the hospital with her, they can't stay there. Child Protective Services might be called if she doesn't have someone else who can take them. Or a mom begins having complications after giving birth, but she ignores her own health because she doesn't have anyone to take care of her newborn or other children. 

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"The ability as a parent to be able to focus on your own health presents a challenge when you're caring for other children," said Alexis Hall, director of perinatal health and education at Mama Sana.

Sometimes that mom might call one of the collaborative's organizations, and it might try to find a volunteer to take the child or children. The grant will formalize that grassroots effort, Miles said, by hiring contractors who are trained in child care to be on call to provide care for doctor visits, hospital stays and even bed rest.

Building community trust

In building this program, they are talking with the women served by the collaborative's groups. "It's important that we're trusted," Hall said. 

The details and licensing are still being worked out, Miles said, and will be created with collaboration with the mothers the groups serve. The collaborative expects to provide child care to 300 Black women during the three-year period of the grant, beginning in September or October.

This grant is "reenvisioning what community care looks like," Hall said. "It looks like the needs of the pregnant person. Right now, that's not always the case." 

Miles said she hopes that this becomes a pilot program and that the collaborative can prove that providing child care improves a mother's health outcome, allowing for more funding from other grants to expand the service to more women in more communities of color and vulnerable populations. 

The collaborative looked for similar programs and didn't find anything, Miles said. The hope is "that it's really replicable and this can be the standard of care for people across the country."