In recent years, research has suggested a tremendous racial disparity between African-American women and other races in the area of infant mortality. Additionally, these statistics reveal that, due to many factors, African-American women on the West Side of Chicago are having a harder time seeing their pregnancies to term and delivering healthy babies.

In an effort to respond to the need for more options regarding early childhood on the West Side, ACCESS Community Health Network’s Westside Healthy Start Program works with high risk pregnant women to assure that their babies are born at acceptable birth weights and, after they are born, ensure that they remain healthy thoughout their first year of life.

“The quality of prenatal health care being provided in our communities is often inferior,” said Program Manager Tilaya Hollins. “We provide services that are lacking but are crucial within a community that is filled with poverty or low-income families who don’t address medical issues, because other things are more important. This leads to a higher level of stress, and often substance abuse.”

The medical treatment on the West Side is also greatly inferior as many facilities do not accept Medicaid or are simply located too far for expectant mothers to travel.

“Many women in the poorer areas of the West Side don’t have many options when looking for early child care providers in their area,” said Dr. Connie Moreland, OBGYN doctor at the Austin Family Health Center (5835 W. North Ave.) which began offering the program in November. “Consequently, they fail to get involved in early child care treatment, and it greatly affects the unborn.”

The program works, for starters, by encouraging women to visit a doctor or midwife as soon as they suspect they are pregnant. During these visits, an initial examination is given to assess the patient physically, as well as to determine whether the patient is at high medical or social risk.

High-risk factors include substance abuse or alcoholism, prior miscarriages or premature births, signs of depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, weak family support systems, and homelessness, among other things.

If patients are deemed at risk under the program, they are assigned to a case manager who works with them throughout the pregnancy and afterward to make sure they have everything they require. This includes: prenatal services, health education, linkage to alcohol and substance abuse treatment, and other medical, cultural, behavioral and social support services that are needed to guarantee a successful pregnancy and delivery.

“Many clients are teens, and if they are older it might be their first pregnancy,” said case manager Wendy Veldman, who is a licensed clinical social worker. “We teach them to eat healthy and do all that’s needed to have healthier babies. We encourage them to refrain from drugs and to not smoke; not just for them but for their family members.”

“Many of the women we see are really young women who are very apathetic and deeply in need of encouragement,” adds Tameka Anderson, Healthy Start case manager, who’s also degreed in Social Work. “Sometimes they feel they are all alone and need to know that someone cares about them and their child. We become like a surrogate family to them, and they become enlightened about taking care of their child as well as themselves.”

The 8-year-old program doesn’t just stop after delivery, but case managers work with mothers after they give birth to ensure that newborns stay healthy with regular clinical visits. These visits monitor the newborn’s developmental progress, as well as recommend vaccinations. Caseworkers also make home visits to assure that mom and newborn are fine.

“We see them in their home environment to make sure that conditions are safe for the baby,” Veldman added. She admits, however, that sometimes a shoulder to lean on is what the patient needs more than anything. “Many women are stressed out due to many issues and sometimes we are not able to assist them with everything” (for example, those dealing with issues related to their child’s father.) “But we are there to help relieve some of the stress.”

The program is offered at the Madison Family Health Center, Westside Family Health Center, West Division Family Health Center and Austin Family Health Center.

For information about Westside Healthy Start Program, contact Tilaya Hollins at 773/257-6433.