Childhood’s End: What Life Is Like for Crack Babies
Round and round spins a little girl with silky brown curls and far-apart eyes. “Serena, don’t,” says Annie, her adoptive mother. Stony-faced, the two-year-old continues her private waltz till she crashes on top of a mound of toys. Her adopted brother, Matt, who’s four, materializes by her side. As though the presence of this elfin, coffee-colored child were a cue, Serena, still flat on her back, grasps a block and lobs it at his head.
Contact. Serena chuckles deep in her throat. Matt, felled to the floor, emits a room-swallowing shriek. He will keep shrieking long after Annie, a large, gentle woman whose dark eyes sparkle behind cheap glasses, picks him up and cradles him in her arms. In time, Annie sets Matt on his feet. The toddlers begin to roam, both on aimless trajectories in which the one goal — forward motion — is broken only by dips to pick up toys that are just as quickly hurled back to the floor. Over the course of the next four hours, neither will smile, not even once.
“What about a crack baby?” the social worker asked when Annie first went looking for a child. A single black woman from Brooklyn, Annie had spent twenty years caring for all and sundry in her orbit who were in need. Then, four years ago, at thirty-four, Annie decided the time had come to be selfish — at least, selfish by her lights. She wanted a baby. Specifically, she wanted to adopt a healthy baby girl. Annie had no interest in crack babies.
The social worker persisted. “Crack babies are fussy to start,” she said. “You may have some sleepless nights. But any long-term problems should be minor.” Annie stood firm: A healthy child or none at all. “Please,” the social worker finally said. “We’re desperate.”
And so Annie abandoned her dream of a perfect baby and adopted the only child available, Matt, and then, a year later, Serena — two pretty, mixed-race babies who sprang from bodies that had their own minimum daily requirement for crack.
Four years, six cribs and nine strollers later, Annie and her smash-happy children had endured these among other minor problems: cerebral hemorrhaging, seizures, fluid on the brain, lesions of the brain, atrophy of the brain, countless episodes of apnea (arrested breathing), tremors, crumbling cartilage, not to mention weekly visits to the neurologist, pulmonary specialist, orthopedist, speech therapist, pediatrician and infant-stimulation class.
“I used to think love would solve anything,” says Annie. “Love doesn’t make a damaged brain whole.”
Crack damages fetuses like no other drug. With heroin, for instance, an addiction is created and the baby has to be weaned after birth. Scary as that withdrawal may seem (some babies are killed by it), once it’s over, the outlook is reasonably good.
The same can’t be said for crack babies. Crack babies aren’t addicted as such. But the damage the drug causes, which seems to arise from its ability to constrict blood vessels, doesn’t go away. When a pregnant woman uses crack, her baby’s oxygen supply is cut off. Doctors speculate that the extent of damage probably depends on the stage of pregnancy. Some addicts say that whenever they smoke crack during the latter stages of pregnancy, the fetus kicks madly, as though in protest of being strangled.
No one can predict the result of that strangulation. The one thing scientists do know is that the fetus’s brain is often damaged. And the amount of damage varies wildly. Annie’s children, for instance, are certainly far better off than a pair of crack twins who are so impaired they’ll never dress themselves. Matt and Serena, however, are far worse off than the children who’ve been successfully mainstreamed into grade school. But even for these luckiest cases, the long-term prospects are simply unknowable.
Indeed, a heated debate on how far crack babies can go is at the center of all public discussion of their fate. Some adoptive parents and experts who advocate early intervention believe that the sky’s the limit for these children — as long as they get the proper care. Attention must be paid! they say. Get out your pocketbooks! A generation can be saved!
Others believe that what’s done can’t be undone. Therapy, the pessimists argue, won’t stop a brain-damaged child like Serena from hurling blocks for the next fifty years. Not that the pessimists are opposed to throwing big bucks at the problem. In fact, several prominent specialists are profoundly pessimistic about their subjects’ fate. While they push for grants to study crack babies, they continually question why. For them, this is truly a lost generation, and neither love nor money is ever going to change that. For those in the front lines, the size of the crack-baby crisis has almost overnight become mind numbing. Some studies estimate that each year in the United States, 375,000 babies are born to women who use illicit drugs during pregnancy — some form of cocaine being the primary drug (all forms are harmful to the fetus; the advent of crack just made the drug more accessible).
Since between ten and twenty-five percent of pregnant women admit to using cocaine, this already-bleak estimate may be grossly understated (about 4 million babies are born in the United States annually). And considering the peanut-butter-and-jelly-like affinity that crack and sex have, these numbers will doubtless just grow worse.
Writing off the ostensibly doomed is nothing new. What’s especially disheartening about the crack-baby crisis is the speed of it all — nearly everyone appears to have given up on these children the instant anyone first suspected there was anything wrong.