An extensive study of crack babies conducted in Philadelphia over the span of over 20 years yielded some unexpected results:
Poverty in the inner-city is more powerful than cocaine.
“We went looking for the effects of cocaine,” Hurt said. But after a time “we began to ask, ‘Was there something else going on?’ “
While the cocaine-exposed children and a group of nonexposed controls performed about the same on tests, both groups lagged on developmental and intellectual measures compared to the norm. Hurt and her team began to think the “something else” was poverty.
As the children grew, the researchers did many evaluations to tease out environmental factors that could be affecting their development. On the upside, they found that children being raised in a nurturing home – measured by such factors as caregiver warmth and affection and language stimulation – were doing better than kids in a less nurturing home. On the downside, they found that 81 percent of the children had seen someone arrested; 74 percent had heard gunshots; 35 percent had seen someone get shot; and 19 percent had seen a dead body outside – and the kids were only 7 years old at the time. Those children who reported a high exposure to violence were likelier to show signs of depression and anxiety and to have lower self-esteem.
More recently, the team did MRI scans on the participants’ brains. Some research has suggested that gestational cocaine exposure can affect brain development, especially the dopamine system, which in turn can harm cognitive function. An area of concern is “executive functioning,” a set of skills involved in planning, problem-solving, and working memory.
The investigators found one brain area linked to attention skills that differed between exposed and nonexposed children, but they could not find any clinically significant effect on behavioral tests of attention skills.
Drug use did not differ between the exposed and nonexposed participants as young adults. About 42 percent used marijuana and three tested positive for cocaine one time each.
The team has kept tabs on 110 of the 224 children originally in the study. Of the 110, two are dead – one shot in a bar and another in a drive-by shooting – three are in prison, six graduated from college, and six more are on track to graduate. There have been 60 children born to the 110 participants.
The years of tracking kids have led Hurt to a conclusion she didn’t see coming.
“Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine,” Hurt said at her May lecture.
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.”
Read about the study and the conclusions here.
At a time when 2 in 10 children are living in poverty in the United States and many of those are living in the inner city, we need to be paying very close attention to what studies like these tell us. This along with the studies that conclude that nutrition is a huge factor on school performance and brain development (also something common sense could tell us), it just doesn’t make sense that “we” are not desperately trying to end child poverty. It’s definitely not a time to be cutting programs that help feed and educate these children plus provide intervention services to help them and their families out of it.