In February, Chirlane McCray, the city’s first lady, announced a home visit program to assist new mothers at risk for postpartum depression and other mental health issues.
She cited her own difficult childbirth and postpartum depression in highlighting the need for additional government services for postnatal mental health care.
McCray, who in 2015 launched ThriveNYC, the city’s mental health initiative, said the postpartum visits would initially start as a $9 million pilot project in Brooklyn and expand to the rest of the city by 2024.
City officials now say New Family Home Visits is one of the many programs abandoned in the COVID-19 pandemic. And there are no funds set aside for alternative video conferences or phone calls to new mothers stuck at home with their infants, in many cases without family support.
“The expansion to the program was paused due to COVID-19 and no new funding was added as we assess the city’s fiscal condition,” said Patrick Gallahue, a Health Department spokesperson.
Health professionals say programs that aim to help new parents have rarely been a priority for government officials — and that the COVID-19 crisis only increases the need for help for young mothers.
“I don’t think maternal health really gets to the forefront,” said Laura Vladimirova, the director of the women’s center at the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst.
“City agencies haven’t prioritized this,” she added. “I hope there’s change because there’s been a lot more talk of opening birthing centers and maternal mortality.”
Some nonprofits throughout the city have picked up the slack and operate similar visit programs that have since gone virtual due to the pandemic, according to Vladimirova, who is also a doula.
There are also some limited city-sponsored home visiting programs such as the Health Department’s Nurse-Family Partnership, Newborn Home Visiting Program and By My Side Doula Services, Gallahue noted.
‘Leave People at the Curb’
Research shows that up to one in five women during or after pregnancy suffer from mental health ailments like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“So many of our policies as they relate to postpartum just leave people at the curb,” said Vladimirova. “When you have a baby you don’t see the doctor for another six weeks. That’s the insurance standard.”
McCray’s initiative was expected to increase home screenings for some of those conditions and offer an array of services. She vowed the city would invest $43 million by 2024 “to provide services and support to first-time parents and babies.”
It was touted as the start of what would grow to become the largest home visiting program in the nation.
“All parents in our city should have the support they need at the start of their most important journey, and we are taking an exciting new step to make that happen,” McCray said at the time.
The program was to have been run by the city’s Health Department with the Administration for Children’s Services. The Health Department since March has been overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic and has diverted staff to deal with the ongoing crisis.
“We made the announcement, the pandemic struck, we had billions of dollars in unplanned emergency expenditures, our revenue forecast dropped substantially and, as a result, no new funding was added as we assessed the city’s fiscal condition,” said Michael Greenberg, a spokesperson for the city Office of Management and Budget.
‘More Compassionate Support’
The scaleback also comes in a city battling a maternal mortality crisis where Black women are eight times more likely to die in connection with childbirth than white women — an issue McCray tackled in a 2018 plan to reduce disparities.
“A program like that would be incredibly valuable and it’s a shame it’s not up and running,” said Christiane McClosky, of City Midwifery.
She noted that new mothers in many cases have been separated from their family support system who can help with the challenges of breastfeeding.
“It’s important to have somebody who has experience helping a new mom really get going with the breastfeeding relationship.”
At the time of McCray’s announcement about the home-visit program, critics noted she chose to first launch the effort in Brooklyn, where she was eying a campaign for borough president. She said last month that she does not intend to run.
“It was a difficult decision,” she told NY1. “I thought about it long and hard and decided that in this urgent moment, there is so much work to be done right here, right now.”
Meanwhile, McCray announced Tuesday a shift in her ThriveNYC program: Teams of mental health workers and EMS personnel will handle a small portion of 911 mental health calls instead of cops.
Over the past three years alone, at least 14 mentally ill people have died at the hands of cops.
The de Blasio administration, and other police forces throughout the country, have long struggled to change how cops handle those calls.
“Our goal overall is to prevent these crises from happening, but when they do, we want to provide better and more compassionate support,” McCray told reporters. She pointed out that the city handled more than 170,000 such calls from 911 calls last year.
More than three years ago, the city created elite teams of mental health workers and cops to intervene with the emotionally disturbed but they weren’t looped into the 911 system for at least three years, THE CITY reported.