Indiana State University Newsroom

Task force evolves into ‘Wabash Valley Healthy Moms and Babies'

April 2, 2014

When the West Central Indiana Infant Mortality Task Force conducted its kickoff meeting, the first order of business was to announce a new name.

"Wabash Valley Healthy Moms and Babies" is how the panel will now be known as it works to help more babies reach their first birthday.

While the task force name may have been appropriate in securing a federal grant to address the region's high infant mortality rate, the new moniker more clearly communicates the group's mission to the public and is more sensitive to families who have lost babies, said Stephanie Laws, executive director of the Rural Health Innovation Collaborative.

"We feel this is a much more positive way to approach it," Laws said.

While number crunching is an important part of the work, the new name focuses on the people behind the statistics.

"Gov. Pence said it quite well when he said this is not about numbers, it's about heartache," William Van Ness II, commissioner of the Indiana State Department of Health, said. "Who doesn't want a baby to live to see their first birthday? We all do."

Indiana has the sixth highest infant mortality rate in the country with 7.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011, compared with a national rate of 6.05.

The state's rate has fallen below 7.0 only once in 113 years of data collecting, Van Ness said.

"We have a long term persistent problem with high infant mortality in Indiana and ... I'm frankly embarrassed. It takes a while to change that but we're not letting it hide under a rock anymore," he said.

"I'm glad you're here today," Van Ness told the more than 50 people attending the Healthy Moms and Babies kickoff. "We are firmly convinced that the solution is going to be community based. Like politics, most health care is local."

The Wabash Valley especially has work to do. The collective rate for Clay, Greene, Owen, Parke, Putnam, Sullivan, Vigo and Vermillion counties stands at 8.9 percent, the second highest among the state's 11 hospital districts.

A high percentage of women in the area smoke while pregnant (33 percent in Owen County, the region's highest rate) and many expectant mothers do not receive prenatal care in the first trimester (46.5 percent in Parke County), according to data presented at the meeting. Statewide, only 16.6 percent of expectant mothers smoke and 31.9 percent fail to receive early pre-natal care.

Another statistic emerged during an audience question and answer session that suggests sleeping practices also contribute to the Wabash Valley's infant death rate. State Health Department data show 14.5 percent of area infant deaths are due to suffocation, compared to 3.5 percent statewide.

The State Department of Health is hiring a safe sleep coordinator, said Jeena Siela, deputy director of the state health department's maternal and child health division. That person will work with Cribs for Kids, a national initiative that provides portable cribs to families who cannot otherwise afford a safe place for their babies to sleep.

Infant mortality is a complex problem that will require action on many fronts, said Jack Turman, dean of Indiana State's College of Nursing, Health and Human Services and a task force member."

"Those of us that have been studying this and working in this field ... have realized that our focus needs to stop shifting away from the personal health behaviors of women to the social, ecological and environmental constructs that surround those women," Turman said. "We still look at data about the personal health behaviors of women but now never with a judgmental perspective."

Instead, said Turman, health experts must examine the reasons behind behavior that puts babies at risk.

"Years ago when I was in training it was all focused on the woman and her personal health behavior ... and I felt even then in a rather judgmental fashion," he said. "You know what? That doesn't work. It doesn't work to tell someone to don't smoke during pregnancy, don't eat that hamburger and don't do drugs. What we do know works is the community-based health promotion approach."

To help Wabash Valley communities, the Healthy Moms and Babies initiative plans to:

• Sponsor five community forums to discuss priorities and solutions

• Establish a fetal and infant mortality review board to promote collection of data to be used to implement targeted prevention and intervention strategies

• Create a pregnancy peer support training program and an associated smartphone app for moms

Health care professionals, community leaders, non-profit representatives, educators and students attended the Healthy Moms and Babies kickoff.

Audience comments included a suggestion to reach out to expectant fathers and a question about why even more people from the eight-county region were not in attendance.

"Many community members don't come because many people don't realize there's a problem. When something is normal, expected and happens, there's a lack of awareness that something is wrong and something needs to be done," said Turman, who has tackled the problem before in southern California and in Nebraska.

"Once a community begins to realize this and there is hope for them to take ownership and develop strategies, you'll see more people showing up and really getting engaged," he said.

Updates about Wabash Valley Healthy Moms and Babies will be posted on and on twitter at #WVBabiesandMoms.

Photo: - Stephanie Laws, executive director of the Rural Health Innovation Collaborative, announces the Wabash Valley Healthy Moms and Babies project to help reduce infant deaths. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Photo: - William Van Ness II, MD, addresses the Wabash Valley Healthy Moms and Babies kickoff March 28, 2014 in Terre Haute. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Photo: - Jack Turman, dean of Indiana State University's College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services, discusses factors contributing to infant deaths during the Wabash Valley Healthy Moms and Babies kickoff March 28, 2014 in Terre Haute. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Contact: Stephanie Laws, executive director, Rural Health Innovation Collaborative, 812-237-3630 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, communications chair, Rural Health Innovation Collaborative, and media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or