When the crack cocaine epidemic was at its peak in the late ’80s, many thought “crack babies” were damaged irreparably. A long-term study finds crack-exposed children do no worse than similar children whose mothers didn’t use drugs during pregnancy, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The most powerful risk factor: poverty.
A 1989 study found nearly one in six newborns at Philadelphia hospitals had mothers who tested positive for cocaine. Hallam Hurt, then chair of neonatology at Albert Einstein Medical Center, began following babies born at the hospital — half exposed to cocaine, half not exposed. All came from low-income families and nearly all were black.
Troubling stories were circulating about the so-called crack babies. They had small heads and were easily agitated and prone to tremors and bad muscle tone, according to reports, many of which were anecdotal. Worse, the babies 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-exposed children didn’t do well in school or life, but neither did the children in the control group.
The researchers consistently found no significant differences between the cocaine-exposed children and the controls. At age 4, for instance, the average IQ of the cocaine-exposed children was 79.0 and the average IQ for the nonexposed children was 81.9. Both numbers are well below the average of 90 to 109 for U.S. children in the same age group. When it came to school readiness at age 6, about 25 percent of children in each group scored in the abnormal range on tests for math and letter and word recognition.
In both groups, children raised by a nurturing caregiver did much better than the average. You’d think the crack-using mothers would be especially dysfunctional caregivers, but perhaps they were more likely to let competent family members raise their kids.
The team has kept tabs on 110 of the 224 children originally in the study. Of the 110, two are dead – one shot in a bar and another in a drive-by shooting – three are in prison, six graduated from college, and six more are on track to graduate. There have been 60 children born to the 110 participants.
Karen Drakewood was on an all-night crack binge when she went into labor in 1990. She feared her daughter, Jaimee, “would be slow, mentally retarded, or something like that because of me doing drugs,” she said. After several tries — and a year in jail — she got off drugs and found a job. Jaimee, now 23, is a senior at Tuskegee. A single mother of a baby boy, she hopes to become a food inspector. Her older sister has earned a master’s degree; her brother is a university student.