One year after headlining Maternal Health Day activities at Montclair State, New Jersey First Lady Tammy Snyder Murphy recently unveiled the Nurture NJ Strategic Plan, with the aim of “making New Jersey the safest and most equitable place in the nation to give birth and raise a baby.”
Behind the scenes, academics and practitioners such as Nastassia Davis, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing; Kaitlin Mulcahy, associate director of the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health (CAECMH); and Jill Wodnick, a doula who has been the cornerstone of much of Montclair State’s maternal health efforts through CAECMH, were among those interviewed to help craft the state’s strategic plan. And, through their work at the University, they will be among an army of health practitioners and educators across the state helping to see its goals to fruition.
According to statistics cited in Murphy’s plan, New Jersey is currently ranked 47th in the nation for maternal deaths and has one of the widest racial disparities for both maternal and infant mortality: “A Black mother in New Jersey is seven times more likely than a white mother to die from maternity-related complications, and a Black baby is over three times more likely than a white baby to die before his or her first birthday.”
The plan “aims to reduce maternal mortality by 50% over five years and eliminate racial disparities in birth outcomes.”
One year ago, educational leaders from Montclair State’s Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health, School of Nursing, and Department of Public Health discussed how the University’s cross-discipline approach is identifying, addressing and hopefully solving the myriad of complex problems that stand in the way of improved outcomes for mothers and infants.
“Our center through Jill’s advocacy has a seat at many discussions of what the strategic plan is talking about,” says Mulcahy. For example, CAECMH has been asked to be part of the Preschool Development Birth through 5 Grant, a federal grant awarded to multidisciplinary state departments. Wodnick is providing technical assistance to the New Jersey Department of Health on issues related to the Nurture NJ Strategic Plan, including childbirth education, reducing unnecessary caesarean sections, and increasing the childbirth education and doula care across the state.
Mulcahy adds, “We’ve also been asked to sit on other panels in the maternal health space,” such as Advocates for Children of New Jersey, that “are looking to improve birth outcomes and developmental outcomes for low-income children and families in our state over the next three years.”
Mulcahy gives much credit to Wodnick in bringing the University to the table on the subject of maternal health.
“Jill is looked at as being the expert consultant, the expert technical assistant,” Mulcahy says. “She has influenced Mrs. Murphy’s thinking, and we spend a lot of time with Mrs. Murphy’s policy advisors as well on these issues.”
Wodnick is quick to share the limelight.
“There are many people in different multidisciplinary departments, and we find each other.” She cites Melanie Shefchik, instructional specialist, Department of Public Health: “She wrote the maternal infant plan for the City of Clifton – with a number of undergraduate and graduate Montclair State Public Health students – and that is a city-specific maternal infant health plan that focuses on increasing home visitation funding for doula care.”
Meanwhile, Davis, in both her role as assistant professor in the School of Nursing and as founder of the Perinatal Health Equity Foundation, was invited to speak at the introduction of the strategic plan in January. Last year, Davis introduced a new maternal and child health class for School of Nursing students. She reports, “It’s a dynamic curriculum and we’re adjusting it to respond to current social and political dynamics in our local communities.” Davis has also invited Wodnick to provide Lamaze childbirth education for this coming semester when students perform a clinical rotation.
“Our curriculum blends clinical experiences in the community, a concept that is unique to our program,” says Davis. “Students get exposed to the lived experiences of the families they serve as well as the social determinants of health that impact them. In addition to the Lamaze class, students will visit a local WIC [Women, Infants and Children] center, prenatal clinic, and maternal child health home visitation program to name a few. This year, students will write a perinatal disparities paper where they will take a deeper look at the disparities in maternal child health from a national and local perspective. It was important to me that the course was infused with reproductive justice and cultural humility so that our future nurses have the social awareness to impact change as they enter the field.”
Mulcahy notes that CAECMH’s work extends beyond maternal and infant health.
“When we look at maternal infant health, we’re also looking at maternal infant relational health and making sure that there are services and policies and legislation in place to also look at that emerging relationship that begins in pregnancy,” Mulcahy says.“Our center and our University are looked to as policy and service experts in the aspect of maternal infant health that is moving from biophysical to the relationship.”
“I think one of the strengths that Montclair State has is that there’s so much interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate student engagement from a clinical perspective, from the School of Nursing, to Public Health, to the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health,” says Wodnick. “People who are interested in improving maternity care can get policy, clinical and community internships and field work here at Montclair State – the interdisciplinary ability to do policy system legislative change concurrent with all of the other academic interdisciplinary partners.”
Wodnick’s role with the Center is publicly and privately funded. She notes the generosity of the DeTura family which bestowed another gift in December to the Montclair State Foundation, helping to extend free childbirth education through the University. “We’re now doing it online too, because of the COVID environment, and we’re actually able to touch hundreds of more people in terms of childbirth education than I was doing in person.”
Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann