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Developing Crack Babies Refute Fears of Neurological Cocaine-Induced Damage


February 1993

After years of frightening headlines suggesting that infants exposed to cocaine in utero would suffer irreparable neurological damage, the behavior of the first cohort of such infants is refuting the fears, showing generally normal development (Dana Kennedy-AP, "Crack Babies Are Disproving Fears of Neurological Cocaine-Induced Damage: With Early Help, They Catch Up With Other Children, Experts Say," Dallas Morning News, 1/3/93).

Mistaken public perceptions have fostered laws to punish pregnant, cocaine-using women, and led to statements such as that by presidential candidate Ross Perot who referred to the social costs of the abandoned crack baby who "becomes a ward of the state because he's permanently and genetically damaged."

Continuing research suggests that cocaine exposure alone is unlikely to cause persistent neurobehavioral problems, and is a relatively minor risk factor compared to chronic, high-level in utero alcohol exposure. In particular, researchers stress that so-called crack babies are invariably exposed to a host of risk factors, including other drug and alcohol exposure, poverty, malnutrition, and a chaotic and non-nurturing early environment.

Ira Chasnoff, M.D., whose early work was often cited by the lay press as proof of the crack baby syndrome, now suggests that environment may play a more significant role than cocaine exposure.

A recent study by the National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education, of which Chasnoff is president, showed that crack-exposed children had the same IQ scores as non-crack-exposed children who lived in a similar environment. And Chasnoff suggested why the image of the 'crack baby' became so popular. "The image of the 'crack baby' really moved out there. Politicians really picked it up. It worked into the trend of writing about the underclass. It's sexy, it's interesting, it sells newspapers and it perpetuates the us-versus-them idea."

While cocaine and other-drug exposed infants may initially be slower to develop than infants from non-drug and higher socioeconomic environments, they are able to catch up quickly with proper attention. The worst variable may be poverty, researchers now suggest. "Poverty is the worst thing that can happen to a child, said Chasnoff. [The challenge for humane public policy wonks is to implement a reduction in poverty, or ameliorate the conditions of poverty. -- EES]