Former Crack Baby: ‘It’s Another Stigma, Another Box to Put Me In’

Todd Reed and Sarah Hoye, Al Jazeera, March 10, 2015

From the moment she was born, much of the country assumed Jaimee Drakewood was doomed. Her mother had her in the throes of a crack cocaine addiction. She was, as the politicians dubbed it, a crack baby.

“I immediately get defensive,” Drakewood, now 25, says about hearing the term. “It’s another stigma, another box to put me in. It bothers me, because it feels like I already had my life written off before I was able to live it.”

Drakewood was born when the war on drugs was in full swing, and the crack baby was the poster child.

“Go to a neonatal unit, if you can get in, there are between 100 and 200 percent capacity up and down the East Coast, and the reason is crack babies being born,” Independent candidate Ross Perot declared during a presidential debate in 1992. “Baby’s in the hospital 42 days; typical cost to you and me is $125,000. 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 genetically damaged.”

“Like Mr. Perot,” then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton intoned, “I have held crack babies in my arms.”

Drakewood’s mother, Karen Drakewood, was also worried about how her drug use may have harmed her child. She jumped at the chance to enroll her newborn in a study, which followed more than 200 crack babies for more than two decades. Completed just over a year ago, that study would turn the conventional wisdom about crack babies on its head.

Like an infectious disease, crack’s spread in the late 1980s and early 1990s was rapid and vicious in America’s inner cities where many people were broke, hungry and out of work. Amid that desperation, crack seemed to be the perfect remedy for the inner-city blues.

Potent and cheap, crack shook Philadelphia to its knees. In North Philadelphia and the Mantua district on the city’s west side, drug dealers ruled, crack addicts trolled the block and residents lived in fear.

Crack didn’t discriminate. It wasn’t just men smoking rock. It was mothers, sisters and daughters too. A 1989 study found that one in six newborns delivered at Philadelphia hospitals had mothers who used cocaine during pregnancy.

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Dr. Hallam Hurt, then the chair of neonatology at Albert Einstein Medical Center, had seen many women like Karen Drakewood. {snip}

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Hurt spearheaded the groundbreaking study, following the babies of mothers who smoked crack during their pregnancy between 1989 and 1992–the height of the crack epidemic.

“We were really preparing for the worst,” Hurt said. “We had reports of psychologists saying this was going to be a biologically inferior underclass, might not even be able to dress themselves.”

But after 25 years of research, she found there were no differences in the health and life outcomes between babies exposed to crack and those who weren’t.

The crack baby was a myth.

What did make a difference for those babies, however, was poverty and violence.

“We have a lot of information about the children and in particular the home,” she said. “And it turns out that the children that were scoring at or above average had more nurturing and cognitively stimulating home environments regardless of cocaine exposure. It didn’t make a difference.”

Dr. Hurt, who is now a professor of pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says it was much easier at the time to blame the drugs for inner-city woes.

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