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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, 10 March 2004.
© Copyright 2004 Stanton Peele. All rights reserved.

The Crack Baby Myth Can Itself Be Damaging

Stanton Peele

 

When a neighbor discovered a boy rummaging through the garbage, the case of the Jacksons – a family whose four adopted sons were so malnourished that they appeared to be many years younger than they actually were – came to light in New Jersey. The case was one of several in which allegedly neglected or abused children were being supervised by the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services, prompting investigations and an overhaul of the system.

Particularly noteworthy in the case of the Jacksons was the number of Division workers who had seen the emaciated, undergrown children, but had not suspected anything or investigated further. For their part, the parents told neighbors and fellow church-goers that the "brothers had been born addicted to crack cocaine and had an eating disorder."

On February 25th, a blue-ribbon panel of researchers who have investigated the effects of the prenatal use of crack cocaine issued a public letter decrying such claims. There is simply no evidence, according to these 30 experts, that crack use by mothers has such long-lasting, devastating effects.

Of course, the Jacksons had a reason to resort to the idea that, because the four boys’ natural mothers used crack, they would show effects years later. But, the panel also strongly criticized press accounts of this and other stories that referred to “crack babies” or “crack-addicted babies.” According to the panel’s letter, “These terms and similarly stigmatizing terms, such as ‘ice babies’ and ‘meth babies,’ [referring to methamphetamines] lack scientific validity and should not be used.”

The research of one of the panel members, Deborah Frank of Boston University’s School of Medicine, is typical. Dr. Frank found no developmental effects from even the heavy use of cocaine by mothers on children who were studied up to the age of 2. While there were often developmental difficulties in such children, when compared with others from similar backgrounds whose mothers used crack less heavily, or not at all, the supposed “crack babies” were not worse off.

Dr. Frank determined that the difficulties often seen in babies of drug-using mothers were due to factors generally associated with poverty. But, when early interventions occurred to address such problems, the children of heavy drug users did as well as the others in remediating such environmental damage.

The panel, headed by Dr. David Lewis of Brown University’s Medical School, made the point that the use of terms like “crack baby” was counterproductive. Obviously, the media and others who use such terms intend no harm. They simply want to emphasize the dangers of drug and alcohol use by pregnant women. In itself, this is a good message. But when making such points involves disregarding what scientists know, then readers and the public at large are not well served.

Dr. Frank made the same point in response to her research. Obviously, the goal should be to help all underprivileged children to find assistance – medical, parenting, educational. But, often, people are afraid that so-called crack babies cannot benefit from such help. Dr. Frank noted in an interview, “People need not be scared to enroll these children in the same programs.”

I have a website to which people send their questions about drug and alcohol use. I receive many letters like one by the adoptive mother who wrote me in great alarm that her daughter was not showing normal developmental progress, and was acting out in other ways. The woman was convinced that her daughter’s problems were due to the birth mother’s drug use, and she despaired of being able to help her child (whom she loved very much).

Scientific misinformation can do great damage, and close people off from pursuing help that could benefit them and their children. Dr. Frank concluded, the crack baby “stereotype does as much harm, if not more, to children as the actual physiological impact of prenatal exposure.” And the greatest harm is to give up on the child.

 

Stanton Peele is a psychologist and addiction expert. His next book, to be published by Crown this summer, is 7 Tools to Beat Addiction. His website is at http://www.peele.net.