Most of us can remember hearing about “crack babies” — infants born to crack-addicted women and believed to be irreparably harmed. They were abandoned at hospitals and courageous people came forward to adopt them, warned by professionals that these children were pretty much hopeless causes.
In fact, Theresa Vargas in last Thursday’s Washington Post remembers that John Silber, former president of Boston University, said that crack babies “won’t ever achieve the intellectual development to have consciousness of God,” and in 1989, journalist Charles Krauthammer said, “Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”
It’s always nice when the big shots get proven wrong.
Twenty years later, crack babies have grown up and many have success stories to tell. While some of them have experienced issues like anger, ADHD, learning disabilities, and impulse control, many went to college, landed good jobs, and blended well into loving families.
Barry Lester, a psychologist at Brown University who leads the largest federal study of children with prenatal cocaine exposure, said a lot of misinformation surfaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including that these children had suffered severe brain damage. Then came a period in which studies seemed to say the opposite, that there were no effects from early cocaine exposure.
“Now what you are seeing is the pendulum is swinging back to the middle, where it belongs,” Lester said. “People are convinced that cocaine doesn’t cause severe damage, but I also think they are beginning to realize that it does have important effects.”
It was believed crack babies would become “super-predators”: “We were told over and over and over that this was our fate,” one said. In reality, children exposed to hard drugs in the womb are not necessarily walking time bombs. Research now shows many factors work together to determine how a child fares in adolescence and adulthood: genetic background, prenatal care, early intervention, and home/family environment.
“People are looking for a single statement: ‘Cocaine does this, or cocaine does that.’ It’s just not that simple,” Lester said. He often gets calls from parents considering adopting cocaine- or methamphetamine-exposed children. “What I almost invariably wind up telling them is, ‘As far as we know, a good environment can make up for some, if not all, of the deficits that are caused by the drug, although it’s no guarantee.’ “