Healthcare Foundation of La Porte (HFL) is working to ensure infants not only survive but thrive during their first year of life. According to Maria Fruth, chief executive officer, statistics show that more than 40% of pregnant women in La Porte County receive little, late, or no prenatal care. Babies born to mothers who do not receive prenatal care are three times more likely to die than those born to mothers with care. La Porte County’s infant mortality rate is higher than the state of Indiana and the national average. Two of the major causes of infant death, preterm birth and low birth weight, are also above the state and national averages.
“One of the primary functions of the Healthcare Foundation of La Porte is to bring resources, expertise, and partners to the table to solve the major health and wellness issues in our community,” said Fruth. “Infant mortality, preterm birth, and low birth weight are major issues in our community and have been reflected in our strategic plan since HFL’s beginning.”
Key Terms and Definitions Related to Infant Death
Infant mortality is the death of a baby before its first birthday, and the infant mortality rate is the number of deaths per 1,000 live births for babies within their first year of life. Preterm birth is when a baby is born prior to 37 weeks of gestation. Low birth weight is when a baby weighs less than five pounds eight ounces at birth.
Partners for Healthier Babies
In 2019, HFL brought partners together to form the Partners for Healthier Babies (PHB) Council to address high rates of infant death, low birth weight babies, and preterm births in La Porte County. The council, an initiative of HFL, is a collaboration between medical providers, state and local public health agencies, nonprofit organizations, parents, and community members that aims to make a positive impact on birth outcomes.
“Members were invited to the table to help us plan, strategize, organize, and implement evidence-based programs,” Mary Wellnitz, special projects manager, said. “We examine the social, cultural, and safety aspects of fetal health, and identify service gaps that are associated with infant mortality. It takes a village!” Wellnitz highlighted that the council determined that unsafe sleep practices are a key factor in infant deaths in La Porte County.
Members of the Partners for Healthier Babies Council work with families, women (pregnant or not), babies, and fathers to offer resources that connect residents with comprehensive prenatal care, including prenatal nutrition education, oral health care, and mental health supports. Members also connect people to additional resources including transportation, employment, housing, legal aid, rent and utility assistance, medical insurance, domestic violence, parenting, addiction, smoking, HIV, and others.
The PHB Council also created a Healthy Pregnancy | Healthy Babies | Healthy Families directory, housed on HFL’s Ten2030 website, providing a directory of free services for moms, dads, and families in La Porte County.
The Partners for Healthier Babies Council identified that unsafe sleep practices were causing on average 10 infant deaths per year in La Porte County. As part of the solution, the council launched a Safe Sleep Campaign as part of October’s Safe Sleep Month. The purpose of the ongoing campaign is to make safe sleep practices the norm in La Porte County. “We want all medical providers, agencies, parents, grandparents, babysitters, and childcare providers saying the same messages in unison---over and over,” Wellnitz said.
Fetal Infant Mortality Review
Under the guidance of the PHB Council and with funding from HFL, a Fetal Infant Mortality Review (FIMR) Team was created as another strategy to reduce the rising infant mortality rate. FIMR is an action-oriented community process that continually assesses, monitors, and works to improve service systems and community resources for women, infants, and families.
FIMR teams review the circumstances surrounding the lives and deaths of mothers and infants and provide findings to community action teams (CAT), who develop recommendations to improve birth outcomes and reduce infant mortality rates.
“We gather the information on these cases which have occurred and bring it to the team for an impartial review and discussion,” said FIMR coordinator Peggy Rose. “During the FIMR review process, we attempt to contact the family and have a conversation about the loss so we can look at some of the factors that may have contributed to the infant’s death. At the end of every case, we ask if this case was preventable. Then we take our recommendations to the CAT. In La Porte County, the Partners for Healthier Babies Council is the CAT, which operates in conjunction with HFL. The CAT’s goal is to see what recommendations will improve services at a systems level to help avoid these deaths in the future.”
“I am a strong proponent of public health--greater good for the greater number of people,” Rose said. “These deaths are tragic. It looks as though some of them can be prevented. As a community health nurse for the past 20 years, I am hoping I will be able to draw on some of those connections to help make a change and help bring these numbers down.”
Continued Support for Maternal, Fetal, and Infant Health
Beyond founding the PHB Council and funding the creation of La Porte County’s FIMR team, HFL has supported several programs and projects aimed at reducing infant mortality.
One such noteworthy achievement is the launch of the Grassroots Maternal Child Health Initiative & Leaders in La Porte County under the leadership of Dr. Jack Turman, Professor, Dept. of Social & Behavioral Science, R.M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, Indiana University-IUPUI, Director, Grassroots MCH Initiative, funded primarily by the Riley
Children’s Foundation. The initiative’s mission is to build the capacity of community members and organizations to bring about systems change that improves maternal and child health outcomes in marginalized (Black and Hispanic) neighborhoods.
HFL also provided funding for a full-time perinatal social worker at Northwest Health – La Porte. The position allows for comprehensive support for mothers and families at both the La Porte and Michigan City women’s health clinics.
Most recently, HFL launched a Safe Sleep Campaign, beginning in October to coincide with Safe Sleep Month. The campaign includes education, first responder training, signage and billboards throughout the county, and the “Diapering Together to Raise Awareness” diaper collection challenge to provide parents with costly diapers and educate parents on safe sleep practices.
Fruth stated, “We are grateful for our many community partners and appreciative of the work that each member of the Partners for Healthier Babies Council does individually and collaboratively as a council,” Fruth said. “It is extremely important to us to continue to bring partners together to reduce the infant deaths in our community.”
To date, HFL has invested approximately $1 million in projects and programs aimed at reducing infant mortality, preterm birth, and low birth weight in La Porte County. HFL’s total investment in the community now tops $36 million invested in projects and programs supporting health and wellness in La Porte County.