W&M and VCU collaborate on Healthy Beginnings Program

Anthem Foundation grant focuses on healthier pregnancies for incarcerated women

William & Mary is the recipient of a nearly $50,000 grant from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation to support the Healthy Beginnings project. The university will be collaborating with Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), which also received funding on the project.

As the only program of its kind nationally, the William & Mary Healthy Beginnings Project is committed to helping incarcerated women have healthier pregnancies and babies. The grant will specifically assist incarcerated mothers in identifying pregnancy early and delivering healthy babies to term with nutritional counseling, prenatal vitamins and information about care. Healthy Beginnings also helps new parents and caregivers transition to caring for an infant in its first year.

“This funding is incredibly important,” said Danielle Dallaire, Healthy Beginnings principal investigator and associate professor of psychology at William & Mary. “It allows us to continue to provide services to these women and expand partnerships with VCU and local health departments.”

Ongoing program evaluation efforts show Healthy Beginnings mothers have babies that are on average 6 ounces heavier than incarcerated mothers who do not participate in the program. More than 15 percent of Healthy Beginnings babies spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), compared to 22 percent of non-program babies in the same facility. If Healthy Beginnings is able to reduce the preterm birth rate of just 10 incarcerated women, it estimates it can save the state $500,000 in infant medical care expenses.

“Through our company foundation, we are proud to partner with William & Mary to ensure these at-risk infants have an opportunity to live full, healthy lives,” said Dr. Maureen E. Dempsey, senior clinical officer with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “We know that early entry and sustained participation in prenatal care assures better pregnancy outcomes. Supporting pre-natal programs to create a healthier generation of Americans is one of our top priorities.”

Most jail facilities nationwide do not screen inmates for pregnancy, even though early pregnancy diagnosis facilitates healthier pregnancies by allowing for provision of prenatal vitamins and early initiation of prenatal care. Healthy Beginnings funds these tests and the vitamins along with support groups and educational resources for expectant mothers in these facilities.

Since its start in 2012, Healthy Beginnings has been led by Dallaire and Catherine Forestell, also an associate professor of psychology at William & Mary. The program’s research shows that improved nutrition knowledge leads to longer pregnancies and healthier babies.

“The health-related and psychological issues these women face as they interface with the criminal justice system are profound and represent opportunities for intervention,” said Dallaire. “I am proud to be at the forefront and research on this issue as it pertains to justice-related reform.”

Under the new grants, William & Mary researchers will partner with VCU obstetricians and gynecologists to carry the Healthy Beginnings work through to delivery. Most women incarcerated in Richmond and Henrico County deliver at VCU, whether they remain in jail or are released before giving birth. Healthy Beginnings will provide the name and estimated due date to Labor & Delivery at VCU to ensure a “warm hand-off” between the jail and the hospital. Other regional jails that will benefit from the program include Pamunkey Regional Jail and Riverside Regional Jail.

“Healthy Beginnings is a very important project. Incarceration poses tremendous challenges to ensuring healthy births. This project has real potential to improve prenatal care and birth outcomes for these women and their babies,” said Dr. David Chelmow, Leo J. Dunn Professor and chair of OB/GYN at VCU.

After giving birth, a mother who participated in Healthy Beginnings or her child’s caregiver can choose to remain in contact with the program and continue utilizing its resources. After leaving the correctional system, Healthy Beginnings will help new mothers schedule appointments and follow through on their attendance.

One mother said Healthy Beginnings provided her with a “new mindset on how pregnancy should go.” Another said “the program is simply amazing and helpful when you have no one in your corner.”