- Even if a child manages to exit the womb relatively healthy from a mother who has a drug or alcohol problem, the question of how that child will fare in those first years at home is an open one. Tweet This
- If the lesson from the crack epidemic is the notion that mothers abusing drugs can be expected to raise children who develop normally, we're in for a rude awakening. Tweet This
A few weeks ago, The New York Times issued a massive mea culpa on its editorial page:
News organizations shoulder much of the blame for the moral panic that cast mothers with crack addictions as irretrievably depraved and the worst enemies of their children. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and others further demonized black women “addicts” by wrongly reporting that they were giving birth to a generation of neurologically damaged children who were less than fully human and who would bankrupt the schools and social service agencies once they came of age.
It is certainly true that the dire predictions about the outcomes for babies born to crack-addicted mothers turned out to be overblown. Some crack-addicted mothers did indeed give birth to babies with severe neurological and organ damage. But it was hard to isolate the effects of in-utero exposure to cocaine from all of the other behaviors that drug-using mothers were engaging in—poor diets, smoking, etc. At least part of the reason that this crack baby panic ensued in the 1980s was the public was starting to learn for the first time how a mother’s alcohol consumption could cause severe problems for babies. It wasn’t until 1973 that researchers officially diagnosed fetal alcohol syndrome.
But what does the exaggeration of the problems that babies born to crack-addicted mothers experience actually mean for policymakers, child welfare workers, and the media today?
For the Times, the answer is to tread more carefully: “We now grapple with questions about whether opioids or even legal marijuana are harmful during pregnancy, not to mention the thousands of breathless studies on drugs like alcohol, caffeine, or Tylenol. But the science around pregnancy needs to be approached with humility and humanity.”
Even as we have begun to better understand the connection between a mother’s activities during pregnancy and the biological effects on a child, we have also become much more attuned to how the early years of a child’s life have a significant effect on brain development and the acquisition of intellectual, social, and emotional skills. Even if a child manages to exit the womb relatively healthy from a mother who has a drug or alcohol problem, the question of how he or she will fare in those first years at home is an open one. No one who has ever tried to watch a toddler for a few hours would think it’s possible to do so safely while high or drunk.
But in their rush to suggest that women who were addicted to crack should not have been vilified for abusing their children, the Times seems to skip over the question of the lasting damage that is done to children by mothers who abuse drugs regularly while their children are small. If the lesson from the crack epidemic is that we should do more to sympathize with those who suffer from addiction and help them find the path to treatment and support, that’s great. But if we take from that period in our history the notion that mothers abusing drugs can be expected to raise children who develop normally, we are in for a rude awakening.
The results of substance abuse on the lives of young children are clear. For every five incidents in which a child is removed from his or her home, two to four of them have to do with a family member’s substance abuse. And there are some experts who think that social workers are being too blasé about the presence of drugs in a home.
A few months ago, Melinda Gushwa of the Simmons College School of Social Work spoke to me about that question. Her job involves analyzing reports of child fatalities, and she says that child-welfare workers are not paying enough attention to parental substance abuse. “The number one reason kids die is neglect,” she told me. “It’s because the parents are impaired and not providing adequate supervision.” She added that caseworkers are not asking questions about the parents’ drug use, or when they last met with a counselor or went to a meeting. There may be any number of reasons for this—a deficiency in training or a lack of experience may be to blame. It may also be that these caseworkers have heard too much from the media and their colleagues about the overreaction to the crack epidemic and don’t want to repeat past mistakes. But that won’t prevent us from making new ones.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.