As investigators search for answers as to why dozens of fetuses were hidden inside cardboard boxes at two Detroit funeral homes, the city’s high infant mortality rate could yield clues.
The infant death rate recorded for the city of Detroit is about 12.7 per 1,000 live births in 2016, according to the most recent data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. That’s more than double the national rate of 5.9 per 1,000 live births.
In Wayne County, the health department reported an infant death rate of 8.6 per 1,000 live births in 2016. That year, 120 infants died in Detroit and 200 infants died in Wayne County, said Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the state agency.
And while Michigan shows steady improvement in public health, race-based disparities in outcomes persist.
Angie Winton, president of Metro Detroit Share, a support group for families who have experienced infant death, said she has often spoken to Detroit women who want to attend support meetings but don’t have transportation.
“The unfortunate part with the really low-income areas, they lack resources to get anywhere,” she said. “It’s a huge problem.”
The group has done work with both Perry Funeral Home and Cantrell Funeral Home in the past and helped families pay for funeral arrangements. Winton added that they’re often contacted by hospitals or families directly, but the funeral homes could have reached out if their clients needed financial support.
The state health agency reports that the black infant mortality rate has remained consistently higher than the white infant mortality rate – “a persistent racial disparity of about 2.8 black deaths for every 1 white death,” Health and Human Services said. “In 2016, the white infant mortality rate was 4.8 per 1,000 live births while the black rate was 13.3 per 1,000 live births.”
In 2016, the Native American infant death rate in Michigan increased from 11 deaths per 1,000 to 14 deaths per 1,000 births – exceeding the black infant mortality rate for the first time in two decades.
Other factors, according to Health and Human Services, include:
Age: Mothers between 30 and 39 years old had the lowest infant death rates, while mothers under 20 had the highest.
Marital status: The infant mortality rate for unmarried women was about double the rate of married mothers.
Secondhand smoke: Mothers exposed to secondhand smoke had an infant death rate of 8.7 per 1,000 live births – the rate was 5.5 for mothers who were not exposed to secondhand smoke.
According to a spokeswoman for the Detroit Health Department, two main contributing factors that have led to high infant mortality rates in the city are preterm births and low birthweight.
Winton said she’s experienced two losses, one child very early on and another that she carried 37½ weeks into her pregnancy.
“I had the baby shower, had the nursery done … and then she stopped moving.” she said. “I didn’t think it could happen to me.
“Unless you’ve been through a loss, you do not understand the utter shock and despair and mental anguish that you go through.”
Working in grief support, Winton said she’s met with women who often say they felt like they weren’t listened to or felt dismissed when they brought concerns to their physicians.
“I think women know their bodies better than physicians do sometimes,” she said. “Just in hearing so many stories from moms who said, ‘I was really concerned, but they told me it was fine … and then later it was too late.'”
Winton said she often tells women that they have to be their own advocate, demand good care and work with a physician who takes into account their concerns and feelings.
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