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Crack baby myth goes up in smoke

PHILADELPHIA – From the moment she was born, much of the country assumed Jaimee Drakewood was doomed. Her mother had her in the throes of a crack cocaine addiction. She was, as the politicians dubbed it, a crack baby.

“I immediately get defensive,” Drakewood, now 25, says about hearing the term. “It’s another stigma, another box to put me in. It bothers me, because it feels like I already had my life written off before I was able to live it.”

Drakewood was born when the war on drugs was in full swing, and the crack baby was the poster child.

“Go to a neonatal unit, if you can get in, there are between 100 and 200 percent capacity up and down the East Coast, and the reason is crack babies being born,” Independent candidate Ross Perot declared during a presidential debate in 1992. “Baby’s in the hospital 42 days; typical cost to you and me is $125,000. Again and again and again, the mother disappears in three days, and the child becomes a ward of the state because he’s permanently and genetically damaged.”

“Like Mr. Perot,” then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton intoned, “I have held crack babies in my arms.”

Drakewood’s mother, Karen Drakewood, was also worried about how her drug use may have harmed her child. She jumped at the chance to enroll her newborn in a study, which followed more than 200 crack babies for more than two decades. Completed just over a year ago, that study would turn the conventional wisdom about crack babies on its head.

Like an infectious disease, crack’s spread in the late 1980s and early 1990s was rapid and vicious in America’s inner cities where many people were broke, hungry and out of work. Amid that desperation, crack seemed to be the perfect remedy for the inner-city blues.

Potent and cheap, crack shook Philadelphia to its knees. In North Philadelphia and the Mantua district on the city’s west side, drug dealers ruled, crack addicts trolled the block and residents lived in fear.

Crack didn’t discriminate. It wasn’t just men smoking rock. It was mothers, sisters and daughters too. A 1989 studyfound that one in six newborns delivered at Philadelphia hospitals had mothers who used cocaine during pregnancy.

Karen Drakewood got hooked the second time she tried it. Crack cocaine gave her confidence, she said, for good and for bad. She was in a crack house when she began to go into labor, and said her only thought was, “I want to get high.”

Dr. Hallam Hurt, then the chair of neonatology at Albert Einstein Medical Center, had seen many women like Karen Drakewood. At first, she said she thought cocaine was a fertility drug, because she’d seen so many addicted mothers have two babies a year.

“But it was sex for drugs,” Hurt told America Tonight. “This was the life that so many women were leading. That was an overwhelming memory.”

Hurt spearheaded the groundbreaking study, following the babies of mothers who smoked crack during their pregnancy between 1989 and 1992 – the height of the crack epidemic.

“We were really preparing for the worst,” Hurt said. “We had reports of psychologists saying this was going to be a biologically inferior underclass, might not even be able to dress themselves.”

But after 25 years of research, she found there were no differences in the health and life outcomes between babies exposed to crack and those who weren’t.

The crack baby was a myth.

What did make a difference for those babies, however, was poverty and violence.

“We have a lot of information about the children and in particular the home,” she said. “And it turns out that the children that were scoring at or above average had more nurturing and cognitively stimulating home environments regardless of cocaine exposure. It didn’t make a difference.”

Dr. Hurt, who is now a professor of pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says it was much easier at the time to blame the drugs for inner-city woes.

“Poverty was the elephant in the room,” she recalled.

Jaimee Drakewood appears to be walking proof of the study’s results. She’s set to receive her bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University in Alabama. Unlike many children born to addicts, she had the support of an extended family that took her in and cared for her while her mother was getting her life back on track. Karen Drakewood, who says she’s been clean for more than 10 years, now works for Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections.

But many Philadelphians haven’t had a happy ending. Not much has changed in some neighborhoods since those dark days of the crack epidemic.

In the embattled Mantua neighborhood, unemployment hovers around 20 percent, nearly double the citywide rate, according to American Community Survey Census data. On top of that, the median household income is less than $17,000 and 96 percent of Mantua’s children under 5 live in poverty.

Karen and Jaimee Drakewood managed to escape that poverty and the bleak life sentence predicted by the crack baby myth. Karen Drakewood said Dr. Hurt’s study actually helped her; it was the first time someone viewed her as a whole person, she said, not just as an addict.

“She was a whole person,” said Dr. Hurt. “Everybody’s got their demons. Her demons were seen in the public eye, but we all have our demons. And I think knowing that helps us respect people.”

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