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'Crack baby' development issues not side-effect of drug, but poverty

A 25-year study that followed babies born to crack cocaine addicted mothers found that the children were slow to develop. What surprised the researchers was that the determining factor wasn't crack cocaine. It was poverty. 

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A Los Angeles police officer counts the number of doses of crack cocaine, as he files an evidence police report after a drug related arrest in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles, Oct. 10, 2006.

AP Photo/File

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Jaimee Drakewood hurried in from the rain, eager to get to her final appointment at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Ever since her birth 23 years ago, a team of researchers has been tracking every aspect of her development — gauging her progress as an infant, measuring her IQ as a preschooler, even peering into her adolescent brain using an MRI machine.

Now, after nearly a quarter century, the federally funded study was ending, and the question the researchers had been asking was answered.

Did cocaine harm the long-term development of children like Jaimee, who were exposed to the drug in their mother's womb?

The researchers had expected the answer would be a resounding yes. But it wasn't. Another factor would prove far more critical.

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A crack epidemic was raging in Philadelphia in 1989 when Hallam Hurt, then chair of neonatology at Albert Einstein Medical Center on North Broad Street, began a study to evaluate the effects of in-utero cocaine exposure on babies.

In maternity wards in Philadelphia and elsewhere, caregivers were seeing more mothers hooked on cheap, smokable crackcocaine. A 1989 study in Philadelphia found that nearly one in six newborns at city hospitals had mothers who tested positive for cocaine.

Troubling stories were circulating about the so-called crack babies. They had small heads and were easily agitated, according to reports, many of which were anecdotal. The babies also seemed aloof and avoided eye contact.

Some social workers predicted a lost generation — kids with a host of learning and emotional deficits who would overwhelm school systems and not be able to hold a job or form meaningful relationships. The "crack baby" image became symbolic of bad mothering, and some cocaine-using mothers had their babies taken from them or, in a few cases, were arrested.

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