Adriana Vazquez was a high school senior when she found out she was pregnant. The Fort Wayne woman didn’t know much about being a mom, but she knew she wanted to graduate and go on to college.
Her school referred her to the Education Creates Hope and Opportunity program offered by Catholic Charities in some areas of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. The program provides pregnant teens and young adults with the support they need to graduate from high school and become a parent.
“It was really useful for me being a first-time mom,” said Vazquez, now 23, who had a son.
The ECHO program is just one of many ways the diocese and the Catholic community in northern Indiana work to reduce the high infant mortality rates in this area of the state.
“The Church and our diocese take a broad view of what is support for families expecting a child,” said Lisa Everett, the diocese’s director of Marriage and Family Ministry.
From 2013-17, 677 babies living in counties within the diocese died before age 1, including 137 in 2017, the most recent data available from the Indiana State Department of Health showed. Statewide, 3,029 infants died before age 1 from 2013-17.
A limited number of infant deaths can’t be prevented because of the babies’ health problems. More infant deaths result from factors such as poor prenatal care during pregnancy, early birth, low birth weight or unsafe sleep practices, such as placing an infant on a couch, local social service agency staff members said. A mother’s poverty, limited access to healthy food, alcohol or drug abuse, or lack of safe or stable housing also can contribute to infant mortality.
Infant mortality refers to the number of babies who die before age 1. The infant mortality rate reports the number of infants who died before age 1 per 1,000 live births.
In 2017, Indiana had an infant mortality rate of 7.3, the most recent data available from the state department of health said. That rate exceeded the state goal of 6 and the national rate of 5.8 and ranked 40th worst nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics reported at www.cdc.gov/nchs.
During the years 2013-17, about 72 percent of infant mortality cases in the diocese occurred in Allen, Elkhart and St. Joseph counties, the largest population centers. In 2017, Allen County equaled the state infant mortality rate of 7.3, while Elkhart and St. Joseph counties exceeded it at 8.4 and 10.3, respectively, state health data showed.
Postal ZIP code areas in Allen and St. Joseph counties also rank among the highest in the state for infant mortality.
The diocese’s work to prevent infant mortality includes direct client work and providing financial or other support to independent nonprofit organizations that help pregnant women and new parents keep their babies safe and healthy.
Among its initiatives, Catholic Charities’ ECHO program likely has the greatest impact. During the past three years, ECHO participants served by the Fort Wayne and South Bend Catholic Charities offices experienced no infant deaths related to infant mortality factors, said staff members Melissa Singh and Nicole Kurut.
ECHO provides a support system for expecting mothers and fathers ages 14-24 by helping young moms attend all prenatal and well-baby checkups and connecting them with resources for food, health care and housing. Expecting parents learn about safe sleep for their baby, infant feeding and parenting and receive help to complete at least their high school education.
“Our goal is always to strengthen families and eradicate poverty,” which is part of Catholic social teachings, said Kurut, Catholic Charities’ mission advancement coordinator.
Helping teen and young adult parents graduate from high school greatly increases their earnings potential during their work career, she noted. About 90 percent of ECHO participants graduate from high school, which is more than double the rate of 40 percent for similar programs nationally, said Singh, Catholic Charities’ community services supervisor.
In the Fort Wayne area, Catholic Charities has offered ECHO since 1999 in collaboration with Lutheran Social Services of Indiana. Catholic Charities’ Fort Wayne office generally serves clients living in northern Allen County, and LSSI assists those in southern Allen County, said Singh.
The Fort Wayne office also provides the ECHO program in Whitley and Huntington counties and hopes to expand to DeKalb, Noble and LaGrange counties, said Singh. The South Bend office offers ECHO in St. Joseph, Elkhart, Marshall and Kosciusko counties.
This past fiscal year, the ECHO program served 81 parents just in Allen County and 41 parents through the South Bend office.
“We love working with young moms and watching them grow,” said Singh. “It’s amazing the barriers they overcome.”
Vazquez’ first caseworker connected her with pregnancy and other resources. The caseworker helped her stay current with school work, provided parenting education and kept her focused on her goal of high school graduation and college.
Today, Vazquez and her husband have boys ages 5 and 4. She works in newborn care at Lutheran and Dupont hospitals and hopes to graduate this winter with a college degree in medical assisting.
She stays in regular contact with her current ECHO caseworker, Natalie Stabler.
“They are really good to talk to or about giving advice or how to take the next step on things,” said Vazquez. “With ECHO, I feel you get a really good friendship.”
For information about the ECHO program, call 260-422-5625 or 574-234-3111.