'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.
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"Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine," Hurt said at her May lecture.Skip to next paragraph
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Other researchers also couldn't find any devastating effects from cocaine exposure in the womb.
Claire Coles, a psychiatry professor at Emory University, has been tracking a group of low-income Atlanta children. Her work has found that cocaine exposure does not seem to affect children's overall cognition and school performance, but some evidence suggests that these children are less able to regulate their reactions to stressful stimuli, which could affect learning and emotional health. Coles said her research had found nothing to back up predictions that cocaine-exposed babies were doomed for life.
"As a society we say, 'Cocaine is bad and therefore it must cause damage to babies,'" Coles said. "When you have a myth, it tends to linger for a long time."
Deborah A. Frank, a pediatrics professor at Boston University who has tracked a similar group of children, said the "crack baby" label led to erroneous stereotyping.
"You can't walk into a classroom and tell this kid was exposed and this kid was not," Frank said. "Unfortunately, there are so many factors that affect poor kids. They have to deal with so much stress and deprivation. We have also found that exposure to violence is a huge factor."
Frank said that cocaine — along with other illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes — "isn't good for babies," but the belief that they would "grow up to be addicts and criminals is not true. Some kids have stunned us with how well they've done."
Jaimee Drakewood came to her last visit at Children's with her 16-month-old son KyMani in tow.
It was the 31st time she had met with the researchers.
"We do appreciate everything you've done, because it's not easy to get to all these appointments," said team member Kathleen Dooley, as she handed Drakewood a framed certificate of appreciation. "We are proud of you and we feel you are family, because you are."
The team plans to stay in touch with study participants each year. They have started a new study that uses MRI and other tools to explore the neural and cognitive effects of poverty on infant development.
"Given what we learned," Hurt said, "we are invested in better understanding the effects of poverty. How can early effects be detected? Which developing systems are affected? And most important, how can findings inform interventions for our children?"
The team considers Jaimee and her mother, Karen, among their best success stories. Jaimee is heading into her senior year at Tuskegee University in Alabama and hopes to become a food inspector. She is home for the summer with her son and working as a lifeguard at a city pool.
After a few starts and stops, including a year in jail, Karen Drakewood is off drugs and works as a residential adviser at Gaudenzia House. Her older daughter just received a master's degree at Drexel University; her son is a student at Florida Atlantic University.
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Even in the worst moments, Karen Drakewood said she tried to show her kids "what their future could hold." ''If a child sees the light, they will follow it." Jaimee Drakewood credits her big sister and mother for keeping her on track.
"I've seen my mom at her lowest point and I've seen her at her highest. That hasn't stopped me from seeing the superwoman in her regardless of where she was at," Jaimee said.
Despite her family's history, Jaimee believes she and her siblings are "destined to have accomplishments, to be greater than our parents."