RWJF Community Health Leader Convenes "Diaper Rights" Colloquium

    • June 9, 2010

The term “Monday Morning Rash” may mean nothing to the general public, but it is well known to day-care providers for children from low-income families.

The term is used to describe a common—but rarely discussed—problem for children from impoverished families: the diaper rash that appears on the bottoms of babies and toddlers from low-income families who arrive at child-care facilities on Monday mornings after having spent entire weekend days—or longer—in a single diaper.

“Kids who go home from day care without a rash on Friday because they are changed regularly come back with a bad rash on Monday morning,” says Joanne Goldblum, B.A., M.S.W., president of a non-profit organization in Connecticut and a 2007 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leader. “It’s not a widely used term, but day-care providers know what it means.”

A former social worker, Goldblum discovered the cause of the problem during home visits in an impoverished section of New Haven, Conn. She noticed the children were often wearing used diapers. She also witnessed mothers take diapers off their children, empty the contents into the toilet, and put them back on again.

“The kids were always in diapers that had clearly been on for an incredibly long time,” she says.

The reason for this, she says, wasn’t neglect but money—or lack of it.

An adequate supply of diapers can cost more than $100 a month. But parents with low incomes often have no public- or private-sector help available to cover that cost.

The government bars the use of food stamp subsidies for diapers, toilet paper, feminine hygiene supplies and other personal and household cleaning supplies, Goldblum notes. And charitable food pantries may or may not have hygienic products available.

As a result, cash-strapped parents are forced to make ends meet by stretching their diapers farther than they should go—and their children pay the price in rashes and worse. Diaper rash causes crying, Goldblum says, and crying babies are more likely to suffer physical abuse. It can also lead to health problems ranging from infections to hepatitis.

“When we talk about basic needs, people don’t think of diapers,” she says. “While clothing, food and shelter are incredibly important in modern America, there are lots of other equally important things without which children can’t really grow and thrive.”

So Goldblum decided to do something to address the immense and unmet need for diapers. In 2004, she quit her job and founded an organization to distribute diapers. Modeled after regional food banks, The Diaper Bank collects donations of cash and diapers and distributes diapers to shelters, food pantries, and child care and health facilities.

The first diaper distribution provided 5,000 diapers to five agencies. Now, the Diaper Bank distributes more than 200,000 diapers a month to more than 60 agencies in three Connecticut cities. For children, the benefits go beyond comfort and cleanliness. They are more likely to go to pre-school and to the doctor because their parents are lured by the prospect of free diapers, Goldblum says.

In 2007, Goldblum was honored as one of 10 RWJF Community Health Leaders. The Community Health Leaders Award honors outstanding individuals who work to improve the health and quality of life for disadvantaged or underserved men, women and children across the United States. The award provides national recognition, networking opportunities, and a financial award of $125,000 to support the leader’s work.

“People are too poor in America to meet the basic needs of their children,” she says. “We want to be able to change that.”

Goldblum Holds “Diaper Rights” Colloquium to Consider Legislative Strategies

After six years of successfully giving out diapers and raising awareness (she’s been featured in publications such as Time magazine and ABC’s Good Morning America), Goldblum is intensifying her focus on policy.

She has experienced some legislative victories already. In 2007, for example, the Connecticut Legislature set aside $150,000 to provide diapers to low-income families.

But Goldblum has her sites set higher. On April 30, she convened a “Diaper Rights” colloquium at Yale Law School to explore strategies to influence policy at the state and federal levels. The event was co-sponsored by the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School, and the New Haven law firm Wiggin and Dana.

About five dozen people—representing the legal and communications fields as well as various human rights groups—came together to discuss diapers in the context of health policy, family economic security, and human rights. Participants also discussed strategies for educating lawmakers and using the media to build support among the public. Among the speakers was a legislative aide to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn).

“What we realized, in order to do this effectively, is that we needed to bring people from a lot of different areas together to have a conversation,” Goldblum says. “We’ve had discussions with lots of people, but we needed them to all have discussions with each other. This was our first attempt and opportunity to do that.”

Since the colloquium ended, Goldblum has been working to form partnerships with like-minded organizations and craft a shared legislative strategy. The latter goal, however, is proving tricky. Simply allowing low-income families to use food stamps for hygiene products would force people to buy more with the same amount of funds, she says.

So she and her allies are looking at the possibility of creating new hygiene benefits through programs such as Head Start and Temporary Aid for Needy Families.

“We’re not sure yet what the answer is,” she says. “We need to find the right place where support can be added so families can get the things that they need.”