Gaston County has received a federal grant of more than $1 million to send nurses into the homes of low-income pregnant mothers. The county's infant mortality and child poverty rates routinely outpace the rest of the Charlotte region.
"Woeful" is the word Gaston Public Health Director Chris Dobbins uses to describe the county's health statistics for children.
"In Gaston County right now, 28 percent of our children live in poverty - 28 percent - that's a staggering number," says Dobbins.
Gaston County's infant death rate is also troubling - more than 10 in every 1000 born end up dying before the age of one. That's one and a half times the rate of any other county in the Charlotte region.
Dobbins believes a one-on-one mentoring program for first-time mothers can help. The county will receive a federal grant of $444,000 a year for the next three years to hire nurses who will meet regularly with low-income pregnant women. About 100 Gaston County women will be part of the program initially. Coordinator Mandy Bouttamy says nurse visits focus at first on good health during pregnancy.
"And then as baby comes we focus on did you have the baby's immunizations, are they up to date? Do you have a well-care provider for the baby?" says Bouttamy. "We also teach basics: How do I take care of my baby? What are the cues that I need to learn? When they cry this way, what does that mean?"
The visits will continue until the child is two. The program was developed by a national non-profit called Nurse-Family Partnership and already serves families in eleven North Carolina counties. Private foundations including the Duke Endowment and BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina Foundation underwrite the group's efforts in many counties.
National data from the Nurse-Family Partnership show first-time mothers who receive regular nurse visits spend less time on welfare and are more likely to finish their education. Meanwhile, their children prove less likely to be abused and neglected or have language delays.