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“Crack Babies” and Poverty: Finding the Right Target

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The inspiration for this article is the result of a recently published article: “‘Crack baby’ study ends with unexpected but clear result.” Having worked in child welfare long enough to remember and experience first hand the so-called ‘crack babies’, this caught my attention immediately.

The article is a summary of a study that followed children exposed to cocaine in utero, the ‘crack babies’ as they came to be known, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  I held some of these babies, placed them in foster care, and accompanied them on visits to doctors.

My colleagues and I discussed their future, cautioned foster parents about what to expect, and advised the courts on their progress. I took the calls from distraught foster parents at wits’ end who were struggling to care for infants who would stiffen like a board and whose cries were louder, longer, and much more ‘ear piercing’ than a ‘normal’ baby cry. Thankfully most of these foster parents were completely committed to caring for the children and were calling mainly to vent because confidentiality prevented them from sharing their frustrations with others outside of the child welfare system.

crack cocaineWe told the foster parents what the doctors were telling us, “we don’t know what to expect”. We feared the worst, a lifetime of intellectual delays and medical challenges, and hoped for the best, that they would outgrow the trauma of exposure to cocaine during their early development. Over time, we saw infants grow into toddlers and young children who had some challenges but for the most part, seemed to overcome the early exposure.

The study referenced above sought out evidence, more than the anecdotal evidence such as that my colleagues and I had collected, regarding the future of ‘crack babies’. They found some unanticipated results. Perhaps most significant is summed up in this quote, Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine”. Yes, they are suggesting that poverty is more damaging to children than cocaine.

While this is just one study with a moderate sample size (over 200 children were followed), there are compelling reasons to pay attention. This was a longitudinal study spanning 25 years, what many consider the ‘gold standard’ for identifying cause and effect in social science research. The researchers were thorough in examining the many factors that might influence findings.

The most important message here is the influence of poverty on children. This suggests that we should be doing everything possible to address the issue of poverty especially as it impacts children and families.

Connie Hayek is a walking repository of data and information about child welfare. She is passionate about data, especially data regarding children, youth, and families. Experienced in child welfare, early childhood, education, trauma-informed care, and workforce challenges, she is particularly interested in promoting cross-systems collaboration and innovation to improve outcomes for children and families.

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