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How Police Violence Could Impact The Health Of Black Infants

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis placed police violence again in the national limelight with protests erupting. But Black and brown communities say the effect of police violence is felt long after demonstrations die down. In fact, research shows trauma from racism and violence can leave imprints on a community's health, including on pregnant women. Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Outside the corner store where George Floyd died, murals, stuffed animals and origami cranes fill the street.

RACHEL HARDEMAN: So I'm Rachel Hardeman. I am on the faculty.

NOGUCHI: Rachel Hardeman grew up nearby and is a public health professor at the University of Minnesota. We walk in a field where there's a memorial for victims of police violence. It looks like a replica of a cemetery with about 200 grave markers.

HARDEMAN: This is, like, Ralph Bell - right? - Hardel Sherrell over here...

NOGUCHI: Many of these people were local and died at the hands of police.

HARDEMAN: Travis Jordan, Minneapolis - he's actually - was a friend of one of my dear friends.

NOGUCHI: Hardeman surveys the makeshift cemetery.

HARDEMAN: My first thought is, like, this isn't even all of the names, and that breaks my heart.

NOGUCHI: This scene, she says, doesn't capture the whole of the problem, that police violence leaves marks across a community of survivors - their families and neighbors. Hardeman studies racial disparities in health, focusing on a long-standing problem - Black mothers die in childbirth at three to four times the rate of whites. That holds true regardless of wealth or education. Black babies are more than twice as likely to die in their first year. Research suggests racial discrimination is a likely cause of both preterm birth and infant mortality, outweighing factors like obesity, smoking or poor prenatal care. Hardeman's latest research looks at how police violence in particular might affect that. She studied women in and around Minneapolis after police shot Philando Castile in 2016 and, two years later, Thurman Blevins.

HARDEMAN: Thurman Blevins had just been killed in north Minneapolis. And we asked folks, do you feel like this is impacting your current pregnancy? And over half of the women in our study said yes.

NOGUCHI: Nearly 60% of those women gave birth to preterm babies who were underweight or died. At root, she says, it's about stress, a lifetime of struggles over housing, education and safety.

HARDEMAN: A large body of research shows that that stress across pregnancy can have an impact on low birth weight and preterm birth in particular. Studying the start of life is so important because if we can't get that right, you know, we're setting someone up for a lifetime of pain and of struggle and disadvantage.

NOGUCHI: Examining these struggles, Hardeman says, might help doctors better understand challenges for women like Raven Cain. I meet Cain and her three-week-old daughter, Remi.

(SOUND OF CHILD CRYING)

RAVEN CAIN: OK. OK, OK, OK.

NOGUCHI: Prior to Remi, Cain had five miscarriages with no medical explanation about what caused them.

CAIN: I had gotten an ultrasound and had seen a baby and a strong heartbeat and literally had come back the next day and there was nothing there, so I just had this really high anxiety.

NOGUCHI: Anxiety about losing her pregnancy with Remi, too - she was about four months pregnant when the pandemic hit, then George Floyd died blocks from her parents' home.

CAIN: You know, during that time, it was constant sirens. Then they were saying that the KKK was supposedly in town, and it's just stressful. It's like - and then you're trying to carry a life, and then you're thinking about them being a Black person in this world and the things that they might encounter.

(SOUND OF CHILD CRYING)

CAIN: Oh, you're OK, baby.

NOGUCHI: Cain tried to distract yourself by hosting a family party to reveal she was having a girl.

CAIN: My dad was just jumping up and down. Like, he was so happy. He said he went in the garage and cried a little bit.

NOGUCHI: Cried partly out of relief - he told her the world wasn't safe for Black boys. Midwife Rebecca Polston hears that often. Polston started Roots Community Birth Center five years ago to offer women more support than a traditional hospital. Her clinic defied the odds. In five years, only one client has had a preterm birth. She says that's because the clinic addresses trauma.

REBECCA POLSTON: Some of the things that we explore is not finding out the sex of their baby because the stress that it brings when you find out that you're having a Black son.

NOGUCHI: That kind of stress, she says, is palpable all around her. After George Floyd's death, Polston says she confronted a group of white men flying Confederate flags three blocks away. She closed the birthing center for a week. But the threat, she says, isn't just from outsiders. Once, an elderly neighbor fainted nearby. Polston and her staff rushed to help.

POLSTON: And the police came up with their hands on their guns, saying, what are you doing? - to us, while we're taking blood pressure and clearly health care providers. Those interactions where those who you call for help may not come to help you but come to harm you shadows every aspect of one's life, and it becomes especially acute when you're in your birthing phase of your life.

NOGUCHI: That rings true for Camila Valenzuela.

CAMILA VALENZUELA: I don't know how to explain it, but I feel like that trauma is just in my body.

NOGUCHI: Valenzuela is a doula originally from Chile. Four years ago, she went into early labor. On her way to the hospital, police pulled her over for driving with high beams on. She told him...

VALENZUELA: I have an emergency. I'm pregnant. And he stops me. I need to see your driver's license and registration. So I'm scrambling, shaking. Just remembering makes, like, my heartbeat go so fast.

NOGUCHI: She was scared, and her contractions intensified. She says he berated her, ticketed her and insisted she keep the windows rolled down.

VALENZUELA: It's frigid cold. I'm crying. My tears are freezing as they're coming down because it's so cold.

NOGUCHI: Her baby survived, but this spring, Valenzuela nearly died giving birth to her second child. She blames her earlier encounter with police.

VALENZUELA: Because my uterus had worked so hard, potentially from this previous trauma, I actually had an acute hemorrhage.

NOGUCHI: Two months later, George Floyd died about a mile away. She's still haunted that he called out for his mother as he died. So, too, is researcher Rachel Hardeman.

HARDEMAN: You know, when George Floyd yelled for his mama, it summoned all mothers.

NOGUCHI: Hardeman stands just a few feet from where he was killed.

HARDEMAN: It's just so painful. You know, this is why I do the work that I do is so that every mom gets to have a healthy baby and have a good life.

NOGUCHI: She's expanding her research nationally to keep digging into the connections between police violence and its impact on mothers and their babies.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.