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Crack's heavy burden on mothers and their children

JAKE, 11 years old, missed about 50 days of school last year because his mother, consumed with procuring crack cocaine daily, made him baby-sit and clean the house. ``He's repeating fourth grade because of me,'' his mother says, still reed-thin after three weeks without crack. ``And he won't let me forget it.''

Jake, not his real name, is polite and smoldering. ``I used to stay home and watch the kids,'' he explains mildly, jaw clenched and eyes straight ahead.

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Jake's problem is a common one. During the past two years, crack use has spread like a house fire in the Modello public housing project. What began among youths has become epidemic among their mothers.

The hold of crack on women in their 20s and 30s is seriously disrupting the lives of children like Jake.

Current national figures on crack use are scarce. But Modello, on US Route 1 south of Miami, is similar in most ways to housing projects across the country.

It is a complex of mothers and barefoot children, almost all of them black. The men mostly come and go. The children's average age is 11. Nine of 10 families are headed by single mothers.

Five of the 84 apartments are ``crack houses,'' where users go to buy and smoke the highly habit-forming drug. Residents identify 41 of the apartments here - half of them - as households with crack problems.

``It's really devastated us,'' says Virine Birdens, president of the tenants' council, ``because we didn't have too much to start with.''

Poor and dispirited women have scant threshold to cross to crack. As little as $5 can buy a rock for a few minutes of euphoria. It requires no needles. It is so habit-forming that one try often hooks a user.

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Addicts are often described as glazed and zombie-like yet restless, sleeping fitfully during the day, with little interest in food, and consumed with getting more rocks of crack.

One mother here was an outgoing regular at the activity meetings that tend to draw the most motivated, responsible Modello residents.

Over a year ago, she began showing signs of the crack habit. She lost weight, quit sending her children to school, sold the television, and then sold all the furniture.

Then she began selling her daughters, aged 12 and 13, to men for crack money, according to both neighbors and social service professionals here.

Neighbors gave the children food, but stopped when they found out the mother was selling it. Now they give the girls only cooked meals. Several weeks ago, relatives took a baby from the house to a local hospital for severe dehydration.

This case is extreme, but residents tell of similar cases in other households. Most addicts are either unwilling to talk to a reporter or want payment to do so.

``I don't scold them. I don't throw dirt on them,'' says Elaine Burns, an unemployed mother of eight, who is sympathetic to mothers on crack. ``When they come down and see what's happened to them, it hurts them. I've seen mothers cry.''

She has been driven by worry for her eight children and pressures from her boyfriend, she says, to be tempted by crack. ``Then I think about how much it would take from me. And I don't have that much.

``The crack man is the one that lowers you down,'' she says.

Paying for a crack habit follows a predictable pattern, described consistently by residents and social workers at Modello.

Food stamps worth $65, Jake's mother says, will buy four rocks. Refrigerators often go bare. Then, typically, the television goes, either for money or directly to the crack dealer. The rest of the furniture and other belongings often follow.

Prostitution has become an integral part of the crack scene. Crack houses themselves often function as makeshift bordellos, where addicted women wait for men to buy them the drug.

Jake's mother, who withholds her name, says she never did any ``low stuff'' to get money. Her neighbors agree that she has maintained some pride. To resist selling the children's food for crack, she says, she padlocked her freezer and gave a neighbor the key.

Off and on, she has smoked about four rocks a day, she says, at $10 each. The past few weeks are only her most recent attempt to quit, Jake says.

``Quitting and starting again, that's the pattern,'' says Juanita Brantley, a Dade County substance-abuse counselor who visits Modello.

Crack is not a problem that can be solved separately from others, such as teen-age pregnancy, welfare dependency, and illiteracy, says Tom Petersen. Mr. Petersen, a state prosecutor, has been on leave from his regular duties for two years to work on the social problems in poor Dade neighborhoods.

``Drug use is a symptom of something else,'' he says. ``No self-esteem. No future. A sense of desperation.''

He asks: ``How do you overcome that sense of apathy, that sense that nothing matters?''

Petersen and others are trying to answer that question at Modello and at other blighted Dade County housing projects, with some modest successes.

The crack problem, however, has not yet begun to yield.

As for children of crack-habit parents, local agencies have not quite figured out what to do for them. ``It's a new thing for the schools and everybody else,'' Petersen says. ``Schools are based on the idea of parents as allies in getting kids to school.''

Where children are abused, they can be removed to foster homes. Jake, for example, is an old hand at interviews with social workers, wary that they will take him from his home.

The 12- and 13-year-old sisters were put under their father's care after one of the children reported her situation to a school counselor.

The father was more abusive than the mother, and now the girls are back. - more distrustful than ever of outside help.

``With the children, everybody has failed,'' says Pam Gibson, a coordinator with the task force organized by Petersen. Yet Petersen, Ms. Gibson, and others are already working on more-constructive ways to handle the troubles of children like the sisters here at Modello.

Roger Mills, a community psychologist who works with Modello residents, is seeing slow progress here as the most motivated mothers are building their confidence and optimism. The crack addicts, he says, are mostly the more marginal women who might otherwise be taking some other drug, perhaps drinking heavily.

But, he adds, ``anybody can change if their thoughts change.''

Jake's mother certainly wants to change. Jake has never seen her smoke crack, she says, ``but he knows.'' He has found the drug in the house and hid it from her.

``It did something to him,'' she says of her crack habit, quietly, tilting her head. ``The looks he would give me ... like he hated me or something.''

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