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Reporter overcomes data detours and reticent subjects to shine light on black children’s deaths

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Reporter overcomes data detours and reticent subjects to shine light on black children’s deaths

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Kenya Franklin, a mentor with Black Mothers United. (Photo by Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling)

Black mothers in Sacramento, California are angry.

They’ve been angry since 2012, when members of the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on African American Child Deaths came into their neighborhoods, into their town halls and community recreation centers, and showed them a PowerPoint presentation on how their children had been dying at twice the rate of white children and three times the rate of Hispanic children for the past 20 years.

The presenters were mostly white people. They did not live in Foothill Farms, Del Paso Heights, Fruitridge Manor or any of the poverty-stricken neighborhoods where black children die from birth complications, sleep incidents or gunshot wounds on a weekly basis.

I am a white person, and before January 2016 I had hardly stepped foot into any of those neighborhoods, except maybe to write a crime brief or cover a memorial. I was an outsider in a community of people who are distrustful of people who look like me — people who have arrested them, judged them, and removed their children from their households with little explanation.

But I wanted to tell them that help — while long overdue — is on the way. The county commission that first discovered the health disparities that are killing black children resurfaced this year in a new form, this time with $26 million in government funding to spend in seven target neighborhoods over the next four years. It’s the first time the county has specifically put aside money for saving black lives, and the first time officials have turned to neighborhood leaders for advice on how to do it.

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in California’s capitol, there’s never been a more crucial time for collaboration. I wanted to write a story that would serve as a conduit.

I started by finding black women who could serve as guides. One of my earliest interviews was with Paris Dye, a church worker and ear to dozens of grieving mothers. She introduced me to Black Mothers United, Birth and Beyond and Earth Mama Healing, the nonprofits who led me to the five mothers in my series. Each of the mothers have lost at least one child to birth complications, Sudden Unexpected Infant Death or homicide, which my data analysis showed to be the top three causes of black child death in Sacramento County.

Finding the activists was easy. Members of the county commission were easily accessible, as were leaders of the neighborhood groups that have already been doing prevention work for decades. Those people were instrumental in helping me build my understanding of the history of the problem, and of the kind of resources it might take to fix it.

Finding families touched by the death of a child was hard, and convincing them to talk to me was even harder. The first mother I interviewed was immediately distrustful. She had had negative experiences with Child Protective Services in the past, and was worried that I would share information about her with a service worker who might use it as basis to take her children.

I tried to speak with kindness, and explained my intentions for the project. She eventually opened up a little, but I knew I couldn’t jump right into asking her how her babies died. Instead, I asked her for information about her early life and her pregnancies, listening carefully for pieces that I already knew from prior reporting would tie into the larger themes affecting other black women and children. Over multiple meetings, she told me the most difficult parts of her story.

Reaching across cultures and convincing these distrustful women to speak with me openly was probably the most difficult part of my reporting process. I overcame it by relying on trusted guides to put the women at ease, and then asking questions as gently as possible. I would recommend that anyone who plans to report on a historically denigrated population take a similar approach.

The data component of my project proved another difficult challenge. Starting out, I knew I needed information about all of the children under 18 who died in Sacramento from 2010 to the present. Per my public records act request, the state health department provided me with a large public use file that listed the names of every person who died every year in every county. That file only contained each person’s first and last name, dates of birth and death, county of death and their father’s name.

Once I received the file at the end of February, I narrowed the list down to people under 18 who died in Sacramento County, which got me to about 1,200 names. I then had to send that list back to the department so they could pull the 1,200 death certificates out, which took them until the end of March. The death certificates only existed in paper form and could not be photographed or scanned, so I had to go to the department every day for one week to manually enter each child’s race, ZIP code of residence, cause of death and other crucial information.

In doing so, I realized I had entered data for about 300 children who died in Sacramento County but resided somewhere else. Since my project was about how living in certain Sacramento neighborhoods can lead to early death, I decided to cut any children who didn’t grow up in the county out of the data set, bringing the list down to about 816 children at the end of March.

On top of that, the state didn’t have the 2015 data at that time — it didn’t become publically available until late April. When the master list for 2015 became available, I narrowed it down to children who had died in Sacramento County that year and ordered more death certificates. When those finally came in, I had to again enter the data on them, this time being careful to not enter any children who didn’t live in Sacramento.

At this point, I had about 800 names to work with and I finally began to clean and analyze the data, which was painstaking work. By mid-May I had made some important discoveries about the disproportionate child death rate and I wrote a story draft for my editors to review.

At that time, my editors asked our newsroom’s resident data reporter Phillip Reese to look over the story. He made an important observation — my data set did not include children who grew up in Sacramento but died in nearby counties.

Realizing my mistake, I went back to my original public use file and pulled up a list of all children under 18 who died in our three nearest counties — Placer County, El Dorado County and Yolo County — between 2010 and 2015. Based on that list, I requested about 300 death certificates that I then had to go look at to determine which of those children lived in Sacramento County, based on the zip code listed on the certificate. Ultimately, I added about 100 Sacramento children to my data set. At last I had my final number of deceased children: 873.

If I could do the data part over again, I would have thought much more specifically from the get-go about which children were relevant to my story, and requested all of that data from the start.

I also would have made a separate request for stillbirth certificates, which are separate from normal death certificates. Because my story was largely about infant deaths caused by perinatal conditions, babies who died in the womb would have been quite relevant.

All in all, it was a successful endeavor with many lessons learned. The feedback from the black community was overwhelmingly positive. Multiple local politicians said they learned something about their constituents that they didn’t know before reading my story. Many nonprofit leaders said they were grateful their hard work was finally being acknowledged. It’s definitely a topic I intend to keep following going forward.

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