By Rose Hoban
Thousands of North Carolina children have lived to adulthood over the past two decades, in part because of the work of an little known legislative group, the Child Fatality Task Force.
In 1991, when the group convened, North Carolina had the highest infant mortality rate of any state in the country. Now the child death rate is down 46 percent and North Carolina ranks 24th in the number of deaths of children under 17 years old.
“It’s not any single policy, it’s not any single age group,” said Elizabeth Hudgins, executive director of the CFTF. “It really represents lots of different angles and looking at lots of different ways to make things a little bit better here, a lot better there, and they really add up.”
Even with improvements, North Carolina remains ranked in the bottom ten states in the US for infant mortality.
Monday, the CFTF reconvened for the first time since the end of the legislative short session in July to set in motion their for the upcoming legislative session that begins in January.
According to Hudgins, 9,200 more children are alive than if North Carolina’s child death rate had stayed the same as it was in 1991. She pointed to the drop in teenaged motor vehicle deaths after the introduction of graduated drivers licenses, and drops in childhood death rates after laws promoting bicycle helmets and infant car seats, among other initiatives championed by the group.
Hudgins also said the groups sharp focus on determining the circumstances surrounding violent deaths of children has helped state and local social service agencies to target at-risk families better.
Gearing up for more changes
The CFTF dodged a bullet during the last legislative session after a bill proposed to sunset the task force in 2013. But the task force received strong bipartisan support in the state senate from Senators Bill Purcell (D-Scotland County) and Stan Bingham (R-Davidson), both task force members. Eventually, the bill was amended to extend the CFTF’s life to 2019, but not before Bingham proposed extending the life of the task force to 2050.
Nonetheless, the group, consisting of more than 30 legislators, advocates, law enforcement personnel and medical and public health professionals has several more years to work and prove it’s worth.
Chairwoman Karen McLeod said there’s no set agenda yet for the upcoming year yet, but she said the group would narrow its focus more than it has in the past.
“In the past we’ve supported a whole lot of things. we’re trying to do more specific focus,” McLeod said. “We’re really putting an emphasis on focusing on the biggest impact that we can make with the available resources that we have.
“We’re trying to move the discussion more towards evidence based, intervention models, we want thing that we can show through data, that we can measure, because we need to be able to not only explain initiatives and defend them and their costs.”
McLeod and Hudgins said last year’s legislative accomplishments included passage of a law requiring 10-year lithium ion batteries in smoke alarms, improved tracking of domestic violence incidents, and $49,000 in continued funding for the 17-P program, that provides a medication to pregnant women to help prevent preterm birth.
“One of the things we really want people in the task force to hear is that prevention is so much more effective and so much cheaper,” McLeod said. “With 17-P, it’s a very small amount of money with a huge payback for a mother to have a full term pregnancy that’s healthy. Making that connection often times has been difficult.”
“But the nice thing about the 17-P is that we had really hard, concrete data that we could show,” she said.
Hudgins said the group was not successful on everything they worked on last year, however. She cited the loss of funding for the NC Healthy Start Foundation, a largely state-funded organization that provided educational materials for patients, doctors and hospitals with the aim of reducing infant mortality.