'Crack baby' development issues not side-effect of drug, but poverty
A 25-year study that followed babies born to crack cocaine addicted mothers found that the children were slow to develop. What surprised the researchers was that the determining factor wasn't crack cocaine. It was poverty.
Jaimee Drakewood hurried in from the rain, eager to get to her final appointment at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.Skip to next paragraph
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Ever since her birth 23 years ago, a team of researchers has been tracking every aspect of her development — gauging her progress as an infant, measuring her IQ as a preschooler, even peering into her adolescent brain using an MRI machine.
Now, after nearly a quarter century, the federally funded study was ending, and the question the researchers had been asking was answered.
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Did cocaine harm the long-term development of children like Jaimee, who were exposed to the drug in their mother's womb?
The researchers had expected the answer would be a resounding yes. But it wasn't. Another factor would prove far more critical.
A crack epidemic was raging in Philadelphia in 1989 when Hallam Hurt, then chair of neonatology at Albert Einstein Medical Center on North Broad Street, began a study to evaluate the effects of in-utero cocaine exposure on babies.
In maternity wards in Philadelphia and elsewhere, caregivers were seeing more mothers hooked on cheap, smokable crackcocaine. A 1989 study in Philadelphia found that nearly one in six newborns at city hospitals had mothers who tested positive for cocaine.
Troubling stories were circulating about the so-called crack babies. They had small heads and were easily agitated, according to reports, many of which were anecdotal. The babies also 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 baby" image became symbolic of bad mothering, and some cocaine-using mothers had their babies taken from them or, in a few cases, were arrested.
It was amid that climate that Hurt organized a study of 224 near-term or full-term babies born at Einstein between 1989 and 1992 — half with mothers who used cocaine during pregnancy and half who were not exposed to the drug in utero. All the babies came from low-income families, and nearly all were African-Americans.
Hurt hoped the study would inform doctors and nurses caring for cocaine-exposed babies and even guide policies for drug prevention, treatment, and follow-up interventions. But she never anticipated that the study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, would become one of the largest and longest-running studies of in-utero cocaine exposure.
One mother who signed up was Jaimee's mom, Karen Drakewood. She was on an all-night crack binge in a drug house near her home in the city's West Oak Lane section when she went into labor. Jaimee was born Jan. 13, 1990, weighing an even 7 pounds.
"Jaimee was beautiful when she was born. A head full of hair. She looked like a porcelain doll," Karen Drakewood, now 51, said recently in her Overbrook kitchen. "She was perfect."
But Drakewood knew looks could be deceiving.
"My worst fear was that Jaimee would be slow, mentally retarded, or something like that because of me doing drugs," she said. She agreed to enroll her baby in the cocaine study at Einstein.
Drakewood promised herself that she would turn her life around for the sake of Jaimee and her older daughter, but she soon went back to smoking crack.
Hurt arrived early at Children's Hospital one morning in June to give a talk on her team's findings to co-workers.