'Crack Babies' Catch Up
Santa Cruz Sentinel
December 6, 1992
By DANA KENNEDY, The Associated Press
NEW YORK -- When they spooted the playground, looming like a leafy oasis
amid the graffiti-scarred tenements of central Harlem, the 10 toddlers
and pre-schoolers erupted in excitement.
As they entered Morningside Park, the older kids raced to the swings and
slides. The younger ones clapped their hands and cheered them on.
Within seconds, the children were indistinguishable from the other
youngsters in the park, swooping down slides and climbing monkey bars.
Three-year-old Johnny scrambled up the slide so fast that kids from a
nearby school watching in awe. Two-year-old Tanika jumped onto the
jungle gym like a tiny mountain goat.
This wasn't supposed to happen. These children, on their daily outing
from Hale House, were born exposed to crack. In recent years, the term
"crack babies" has become a national buzzword, a riveting soundbite that
conjures images of mutant, monster children.
Punchy headlines such as "Crack Babies: Genetic Inferiors" and "Crack in
the Cradle" have helped shape the stereotype.
But the children themselves may have the last word. Doctors, social
workers and teachers involved with crack-exposed kids indicate that many
are rising above the dire predictions made for them.
"When people find out what I do, they say 'Ok, those poor crack
babies,'" said Hale House nurse Anne Marie Nedd as she chased active,
giggling 18-month-old Daren around the park. "I get so mad. I tell
them, "There's nothing really wrong with these kids!'"
Since crack swept the country in 1985, children born to crack addicts
were thought to be physically and mentally damaged, doomed to a marginal
life and an ongoing burden for taxpayers.
The first wave of crack-exposed children entered first and second grades
in New York City this fall, a year after one state report estimated the
cost of special care for them could total $2 billion over the next 15
years. Harlem Hospital researchers estimated that the cost of caring
for crack babies costs the country $500 million a year.
Such statistics have fed the kind of fear that led Ross Perot to invoke
the dread specter of "crack babies" during the first presidential
"Again and again and again, the mother disappears in three days and the
child becomes a ward of the state because he's permanently and
geneticall damaged," Perot said.
Permanently and genetically damaged. That's the kind of description
that angers Hale House program director Jackie Edmond as she feeds
beaming, 6-month-old Quashia some apple sauce. Hale House cares for
children 3 and under born addicted to drugs. Like Quashia, almost all
the kids there now were born addicted to crack.
"Tell me, what does a crack baby look like?" Edmond says angrily as she
recounts the stories she's read about crack babies and the comments she
hears from strangers. "Nobody who talks about them ever comes in to see
them. They'll come in here and look at our kids any the look normal.
So they says, 'Where are the drug babies?' I tell them, 'They're right
Across town on Wards Island, watching a group of animated 3- and
4-year-olds reading aloud from workbooks in a sunny room at Odyssey
House, Cheryl Nazario had the same reaction.
"These kids were labeled a lost cause," said Nazario, who directs a
residential program helping former crack addicts and their children.
"It was like everyone expected them to walk into schools like little
androids. But they catch up. They really do catch up."
While crack-exposed babies may develop more slowly than others, many
experts say they often appear to grow out of early problems if they
receive proper care as infants and toddlers. Many believe their
prognosis is as good as children born drug-free if they get early
Such children have to overcome a lot. The gripping image of the
jittery, irritable baby who doesn't want to be touched and cries all the
time is a reality, experts say. But kids born to mothers addicted to
other drugs share the same symptoms, the result of a disorganized
Programs all over the country, including Hale House and Odyssey House in
New York and the Charles R. Drew Head Start in South-Central Los
Angeles, have developed strategies to lessen the symptoms, help kids
adapt to their surroundings and teach parents how to better care for
Many experts who have researched or worked with kids exposed to cocaine
decry what some call the myth of "crack babies."
"It's nonsense," said Claire Coles, a clinical psychologist at Emory
University in Atlanta who has studied crack kids. "There's no evidence
of genetic damage, nothing like what was originally supposed. It's
astonishing that so much fuss has been raised about cocaine when kids
born with fetal alcohol syndrome are so much worse off."
The problems suffered by children exposed to cocaine stem from many
factors, Coles said. Many were born prematurely to mothers who had
little or no prenatal care and a returned to a neglectful environment.
But cocaine itself has not been proven to be any more damaging than any
other drug used by pregnant woment, Coles said.
Those familar with crack-exposed children also echoed Coles' assertion
that children with fetal alcohol syndrome are much more likely to suffer
from mental retardation.
Researchers at the National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research
and Education in Chicago have tracked a group of 300 children born
exposed to crack for almost seven years, while helping the kids and
The association's president, Ira Chasnoff, said kids born exposed to
crack, or other drugs, often suffer from a decreased attention span,
more impulsive behavior and have difficulty concentrating. But
environment may play a more key role than drug exposure in the womb, he
In NAPARE's study, researchers found that the IQ scores of children born
exposed to crack were the same as children who were not crack-exposed
but who lived in a similar environment.
Chasnoff painted a dark picture behind society's morbid embrace of
"The image of the crack baby really moved out there," he said.
"Politicians really picked it up. It worked into the trend of writing
about the underclass. It's sexy, it's interesting, it sells newspapers
and it perpetuates the us-versus-them idea."
In fact, said Chasnoff, "Poverty is the worst thing that can happen to a
(Bela again) My comments: I find it interesting and encouraging that
now that the Reagan/Bush/Quayle years are officially doomed, the
mainstream media feel they can start to debunk the myths generated by
PFDA and others.
Unfortunately, the article failed to debunk the other half of this myth
-- it never said anything direct about the *number* of "crack babies".
Without that information an uninformed but intelligent person must still
be concerned about the costs of giving this "head start" to so many
thousands, millions -- I forget what PFDA says -- of addicted kids. In
fact, as we know, the numbers are low and now we see that the
consequences are low.
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