RICHMOND, Va. — The almost spiritual moments following the birth of a newborn drew both Leann Ragland and Weluna Finley to work as doulas. Both are now using the passion they’ve developed to help new families to support pregnant and postpartum people who experience domestic violence.
The “Heartbeats” program at VCU launched late last year thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Just a lot of compassion for birthing mothers,” Finley said. “We know that suicide, homicide, substance abuse, things of that nature, are some of the top factors in pregnancy-associated deaths.”
“We’re just really passionate about the work that we’re doing,” Ragland said. “The aims for the program are to reduce maternal deaths due to domestic violence. We’re specifically looking at suicide and homicide rates.”
One in three homicides in Virginia are related to domestic violence, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
A 2016 study by VDH officials found that over a 10-year period, there were 462 pregnancy-associated deaths and nearly 20 percent were homicide or suicide.
“We know that incidents of inmate-partner violence increase and domestic violence increase during pregnancy,” Finley said.
“It’s really about providing that support. Being in a relationship where you’re experiencing domestic violence can be very isolating. So to let people know that they’re not alone in this,” Ragland said.
Although people of color experience greater disparities in care during pregnancy, which intimate-partner violence on exacerbates, Finley and Ragland said survivors they work with come from all types of racial, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. They also battle the stigma that domestic violence only encompasses physical abuse.
“People often think when they hear of domestic violence of physical assault, and it is so much more than that. Emotional, psychological, and financial abuse all also have devastating impacts,” Ragland said.
“If there’s any question or doubt or ambiguity in that person’s mind, to be very clear about what is abuse and start from there,” Finley said.
Heartbeats usually link with their patients through the VCU Medical Center but also takes referrals from the community.
To this point, more than 60 pregnant people have enrolled in the program. Advocates and health care professionals work with survivors for up to two years following birth to help provide support.
“Especially the people who are planning on leaving and getting out of these relationship and starting from scratch, a lot of times they have lost everything. So we’re there for every step of that,” Ragland said.
“Our hope is that it will reduce incidents of maternal suicide, homicide, things of that nature. In essence, actually, save lives and also increase the quality of life and folks overall well being,” Finley said. “Family is the cornerstone of community, so it has a broader impact.”
Heartbeats is an expansion of Project EMPOWER. You can learn more about both programs, including contact information and resources for those experiencing intimate partner violence here.