D.C. has been fail­ing to de­liver for black moth­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY AZA NEDHARI

Re­cently, the D.C. Depart­ment of Health closed the ma­ter­nity ward of the city’s only hos­pi­tal east of the Ana­cos­tia River. You would think that ma­ter­nal-health ad­vo­cates, in­clud­ing me, would be more up­set about this news, but we aren’t. United Med­i­cal Cen­ter was fail­ing women long be­fore the shut­down.

We have two Dis­tricts now, and they are drift­ing fur­ther and fur­ther apart. In one, women and babies are vir­tu­ally as­sured to sur­vive child­birth. In the other, the strug­gle to find se­cure hous­ing, food and jobs com­pli­cates preg­nancy, putting women at greater risk of suf­fer­ing in­jury or death dur­ing child­birth or in the post­par­tum pe­riod.

We need to go be­yond UMC and ad­dress the District’s city­wide peri­na­tal­health cri­sis and poli­cies that for gen­er­a­tions have al­lowed re­sources to flow into one part of the District while starv­ing the other.

Un­for­tu­nately, this sit­u­a­tion is not unique to the District. The rates of death dur­ing child­birth are in­creas­ing na­tion­wide. And in the District, we face two in­ter­twined prob­lems: un­der­fund­ing of city hos­pi­tals serv­ing black, Latina and im­mi­grant women and home­less­ness re­sult­ing from de­vel­op­ment and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

Nearly 7,500 peo­ple are home­less in the District to­day. And new moth­ers are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to hous­ing in­se­cu­rity as hous­ing needs change quickly with a new­born, and work­place dis­crim­i­na­tion makes find­ing or keep­ing em­ploy­ment a chal­lenge.

Mam­a­toto Vil­lage in North­east serves hun­dreds of women of color and their fam­i­lies ev­ery year, sup­port­ing them through preg­nancy and birth and into moth­er­hood. One of the big­gest prob­lems we see fac­ing black women who come through our doors is home­less­ness and in­se­cure hous­ing.

Rents around the District are sky­rock­et­ing. Lux­ury apart­ment build­ings are boom­ing across the city. Black res­i­dents seem to be most af­fected by gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, but hous­ing re­sources to help them are dwin­dling. When a preg­nant or new mother’s ba­sic needs for hous­ing, food, safety and se­cu­rity are not met, her stress is am­pli­fied. Pair that with sub­par ma­ter­nity care, and we have a recipe for ad­verse peri­na­tal out­comes for mom and baby.

Clos­ing UMC’s ma­ter­nity ward was a Band-Aid on an ax wound. As for­mer D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber David Cata­nia said, “It’s time to acknowledge United Med­i­cal Cen­ter is be­yond re­demp­tion on its own.”

Wher­ever women of color do give birth, they should be treated with dig­nity and re­spect and pro­vided cul­tur­ally em­pathic care. Women en­trust hos­pi­tals with the well-be­ing of their babies and their own phys­i­cal and emo­tional health.

The District has a re­spon­si­bil­ity and must be held ac­count­able for the type of care pro­vided and the re­sult­ing out­comes. Women of color have the same rights as all other women to ob­stet­ri­cal care that cen­ters on mother and baby, ac­counts for the so­cial is­sues that af­fect the mother’s health and does not de­value her based on eco­nomic dis­ad­van­tages.

Mam­a­toto Vil­lage de­liv­ers pre­ven­ta­tive health and peri­na­tal sup­port ser­vices to ex­pec­tant and new moth­ers in high-need ar­eas. We co­or­di­nate care and help moth­ers nav­i­gate ser­vices through­out the city. We also help meet the needs of moth­ers with lim­ited so­cial-sup­port sys­tems, hard-to-reach moth­ers and those with com­plex emo­tional, psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial needs. Crit­i­cal pieces of our ef­forts to im­prove peri­na­tal health out­comes are co­or­di­na­tion with pri­mary-care providers, bridg­ing gaps in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­still­ing last­ing health knowl­edge.

We have to face the mu­sic on what decades of un­der­fund­ing have done to D.C.’s black res­i­dents. We have to re­build hos­pi­tals that have been ne­glected for too long and con­sider sus­tain­able, in­no­va­tive mod­els that we could repli­cate through­out the District. A large part of that is im­prov­ing ma­ter­nal ser­vices and de­liv­ery care for moth­ers in need.

De­spite the chal­lenges, we hope for equal in­vest­ment across the District. We hope the sys­tems and ser­vices our com­mu­ni­ties need most are justly pri­or­i­tized. We hope the lives of women of color and their babies will be seen as valu­able and de­serv­ing of ev­i­dence­based care. Fi­nally, we hope that re­sources will be ap­pro­pri­ately re­al­lo­cated to UMC to re­po­si­tion it as a health-care sys­tem that ex­hibits ex­cel­lence, pro­fes­sion­al­ism and ex­per­tise.

When we col­lec­tively see the de­liv­ery of safe and re­spect­ful health care as a hu­man right for all District res­i­dents, we can make our city one of the best places to give birth. The writer is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and co­founder of Mam­a­toto Vil­lage and a Groundswell Fund gran­tee part­ner.

SALWAN GE­ORGES/THE WASHINGTON POST

United Med­i­cal Cen­ter

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