Birth in Color RVA works to address inequities, advocate for parents

Updated: Jun. 23, 2020 at 6:46 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - As conversations about racial equity continue across the United States, Birth in Color RVA and officials in the Commonwealth are working together to combat high maternal mortality rates among Black women.

In 2019, Governor Ralph Northam announced a goal to eliminate the racial disparity in the maternal mortality rate in Virginia by 2025.

In Virginia, state officials say the maternal mortality rate for Black women is over two times as high as white women.

“No black woman should die during childbirth when it is supposed to be one of the happiest times of their life,” explained Kenda Sutton-El, co-founder of Birth in Color RVA. “Let’s have an actual roundtable and talk about all of the topics that are being raised during this time period, to figure out a real solution.”

Two years ago, Sutton-El co-founded Birth in Color RVA, which provides culturally-centered support to pregnant families, they also offer a collective of doulas.

Sutton-El has served on several task forces and coalitions addressing maternal mortality and shares the experience of bias her clients have faced.

“I’ve had this happen, a client will go to an appointment and pay with cash instead of using a card for their co-pay and they were mocked, the front desk actually laughed. I went in and they did the same thing to me, I addressed the providers’ office and said “this is what is going on,” said Sutton-El.

Sutton-El says she has also observed different treatment of patients who have Medicaid.

“Sometimes that payback from Medicaid clients is not the same as payback from commercial insurance companies, so sometimes patients are treated differently,” she said. “They leave with tons of questions and that’s where the doula steps in and educates them and provides research to help answer their questions.”

While there are several factors that contribute to the higher maternal mortality rates in the Black community, Sutton-El says systemic racism has remained a large issue within healthcare.

“A lot of providers think Black women are stronger or they don’t know what the pain is they are talking about - everyone tries to make it a low-income issue, it does happen in low-income communities because of disparities, but it is happening in all economic statuses - that’s when we have to look at racism,” she explained.

Sutton-El says there has historically been a lack of listening to Black mothers.

“Especially when it seems to come to brown skin women, it’s more along the lines of being told what to do and given directives as opposed to having a conversation, instead of being included in what’s happening to their bodies and their babies,” explained Tameka Robinson, former Birth in Color RVA client and current board member.

Sutton-El was Robinson’s doula for her second child. She says during the second experience she felt more informed and empowered.

“Birth in Color is doing the work, saying ‘you will treat the mom fairly just like you would any other mom, and she will get the advocacy she needs and will deliver a healthy and safe baby',” said Robinson. “I had a great birthing experience. Even when things were going wrong and I didn’t understand, Kenda asked the questions that needed to be asked and turned around and explained it to me.”

In 2019, HB 2546 established a maternal mortality review team in Virginia to “develop and implement procedures to ensure that maternal deaths occurring in the Commonwealth are analyzed in a systematic way.”

“Until everyone understands all of the different disparities and the things that intersect and overlap, we will never get anywhere or [get] where we need to be,” said Sutton-El. “We all know the system is going to have to be broken down and built back up.”

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