Steps are being taken to develop a first-of-its-kind Maternal and Infant Health Innovation Center in Trenton that aims to improve health outcomes and to serve as a central hub for state stakeholders “dedicated to improving the health of New Jersey’s babies and mothers through equitable delivery of health care services.”
On March 10, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority announced its board authorized a Memorandum of Understanding with Kean University’s John S. Watson Institute of Urban Policy and Research the day before to embark on an iterative community engagement process that builds trust and support from city residents and organizational stakeholders for the project, in addition to understanding what services are needed for new and expectant mothers and children in the state’s capital.
“The Watson Institute has a long history of service to New Jersey’s urban centers. Our team looks forward to working with the stakeholders in the Trenton community to help bring this Center to fruition, leading to increased access to care for expectant mothers of color and their babies,” Kean University President Lamont Repollet said in a prepared statement.
The Watson Institute will evaluate the current landscape of offerings for expectant parents and young children in Trenton. Additionally, its involvement will focus on what services are most needed, from what location the Center can best serve communities with the most need, and what opportunities exist to leverage existing community assets.
As part of the community engagement effort, The Watson Institute will also partner will Stockton University researchers, the NJEDA said.
Following board approval to add funds to its existing real estate services contract, NJEDA also announced March 10 that it intends for JLL to undertake the initial real estate planning for the Center.
According to the NJEDA, the Garden State ranks 47th for maternal deaths, and has one of the widest racial disparities nationwide for maternal and infant mortality. In New Jersey, a Black mother is more than seven times more likely than a white one to die from complications during pregnancy. Black babies, meanwhile, are more than three times more likely than a white baby to die before their first birthday.
NJEDA issued a Request for Information about the Center in May of last year. The response, according to the agency, put emphasis on planning being community-driven: offering residents and stakeholders the chance to provide input regarding services offered and partnerships, and the opportunity to leverage already existing community assets.
“Because institutionalized racism has seeped its way into our maternal health outcomes, reaching our goal of ensuring that every mother and baby in New Jersey gets off to a healthy start will require a broad scope of work,” said First Lady Tammy Murphy. “The Maternal and Infant Health Innovation Center in Trenton will play a leading role in this effort, providing care not only equitably and with leading maternal care practices, but also, from the very beginning, will be shaped by the input of the community it serves.
“Ultimately, we hope to solve our Black maternal and infant health crisis here in New Jersey and serve as the benchmark for maternal care nationwide,” she added.
The first lady has focused her efforts toward boosting maternal care in the state while Gov. Phil Murphy has been in office. In 2019, she launched Nuture NJ to improve access to care for New Jersey’s expectant mothers and babies.
The impetus for the Trenton center came from NutureNJ’s strategic plan, published in January 2021, which included among its nearly 100 recommendations establishing such an entity in the state’s capital, focused on innovation in terms of health and achieved through partnerships with New Jersey’s academic, funder, business and faith communities.
At NJEDA, initiatives related to Nurture NJ and the Center for Maternal and Infant Health are being led by Executive Vice President of Economic Security Tara Colton, who characterized the board action as an important step toward open communication around the project. “Maintaining an open dialogue with community members about their needs is fundamental to dismantling systemic inequities that exist with respect to access to care for expectant mothers of color and their children,” she said in a prepared statement.
Also playing a part in the development of the center: the state’s departments of Human Services and Health, which also helped in the implementation of recommendations identified in Nurture NJ’s strategic plan.
“We are very excited to work with the First Lady and the NJEDA on this innovative new initiative for our capital city,” said Human Services Acting Commissioner Sarah Adelman said. “The Maternal and Infant Health Innovation Center in Trenton will play a key role in our administration-wide efforts to improve and transform maternal and infant health across New Jersey, especially for women of color. We look forward to partnering to make this Center a reality and working with Trenton’s moms to enhance their wellness and the health of their babies.”
Added New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, “The Maternal and Infant Heath Innovation Center will be a game-changer for moms and babies, and one that takes into account the needs and wants of the community it serves.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:25 a.m. EST on March 14, 2022, to update the quote from New Jersey Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman.