Pubdate: Sun, 30 Aug 1998
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)


Poverty Is Main Factor In Child's Ability To Learn

To see Shelly Williams dance around her living room and laugh fondly at her
little sister's antics, you would never guess she was a crack baby.

And believing she recently tested into the gifted program at her HISD
elementary school might be very difficult to accept.

But recent studies on children born addicted to crack cocaine indicate that
this scenario is not rare. Bright, good-natured Shelly, who likes to read
and wants to be a dancer and a nurse, is not an anomaly.

When crack cocaine first flooded the streets of urban America in the
mid-1980s and with arrival of the first wave of crack babies soon after,
doctors noticed unsettling things about the newborns.

Often they were underweight. They cried incessantly and jerked at the
slightest noise. They went through agonizing withdrawals, stiffening like
boards and rejecting any touch.

Doctors and sociologists offered dire predictions about these children.
Crack would affect their heart, lungs and nervous system; it would affect
their cognitive abilities and ability to empathize, thus producing ruthless
predators; it would reduce them to genetic inferiors, forever burdens on

But as the children grew, and researchers followed their progress through
babyhood, preschool and elementary school, evidence was providing a
different story.

The children are not misfits. In fact, they perform on par with peers,
scoring at the same level or only slightly below them on standardized tests.

The problem is their peers are performing poorly, too.

Jacquelyn Edwards directs the Cradles program, a service that identifies
drug-addicted newborns and then works with their mothers to rehabilitate
them and to teach them to parent. Edwards notes that the peers of crack
babies tend to be, as the crack babies usually are, from single-parent,
impoverished homes. Their education is inadequate; their environment is
often violent.

The equalizing factor may be poverty, Edwards said.

Dr. Susan Robbins, associate professor at the University of Houston's
Graduate School of Social Work, argues poverty is the only factor.

"There is no such thing as a crack baby," asserts Robbins, who calls it all
"media hype."

"Crack, by itself, has no long-lasting detrimental effects. What does have
long-term effect is poverty," Robbins said. When compared to middle-class
cocaine users who maintained good nutrition and prenatal care throughout
their pregnancy, crack babies lagged behind because of the ill effects of
poverty, not crack cocaine.

"The most important factor (in a child's development) is a stable
environment, and you don't have that in an impoverished environment, drugs
or not," Robbins said.

But other experts argue there are definite cognitive differences between
drug-exposed children and nonexposed peers.

"The gap is just a few points, maybe 3-6 points. If you're starting with an
IQ of 120, that doesn't matter. If you're starting in the 80s, it makes a
significant difference. Those few points are enough to push a child over
the edge into abnormality or to require special education," said Dr. Barry
Lester of Brown University, who has conducted extensive research of
cocaine-exposed children. Lester also agrees that poverty is probably the
most crippling factor.

The findings of Dr. Gideon Koren of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children
confirm this. Koren is studying 47 cocaine-exposed children who were
adopted as infants. As they entered school, an IQ gap of 10 points opened
up between the crack-exposed children and their non-exposed peers. That
still left them, at 106, more than 20 points higher than the 82 averaged by
non-exposed children raised in disadvantaged homes.

Robbins argues that the brain is adaptable enough to recover from infant
addiction. While cocaine is in the system, the brain ceases to produce its
own dopamine, a neurotransmitter, and its receptors disappear. When cocaine
is removed from the system, the brain returns to producing its own dopamine
and the receptors reappear.

Other experts maintain that crack cocaine affects the prenatal brain in
ways we don't yet fully know.

The reliability of some of the studies showing crack babies to be no
different from their peers is being called into question by these scholars
because children are tested in small rooms with no distractions -- a far
cry from the crowded, rowdy classrooms they enter in school.

Since the part of the brain believed to be most affected by prenatal
cocaine exposure is the part that enables children to screen out unwanted
stimuli, these experts assert, it is impossible to determine from IQ tests
how the children will fare in school. And of 119 studies tracking crack
babies, only six have followed them past the age of 3.

"Isn't that ridiculous? Ninety percent of what we know is confined to the
first month of life. This problem has been going on for so long, you'd
think we'd know by now what's going on with these kids," Lester said.

"There is so much contradictory evidence," Lester said. "Much of what we're
seeing is the effects of poverty. And many of the mothers who use cocaine
also use other drugs. So are we looking at just cocaine use or a polydrug

Lester is involved in a study commissioned by the National Institute of
Health, which will track 20,000 infants from four hospitals in Providence,
Detroit, Miami and Memphis over seven years.

He is hopeful the long-term commitment of the study and its broad scope
will enable researchers to "tease out these confounding, intervening

Previous studies may not be reliable because they were not geared toward
drug-affected children.

"We just pulled whatever IQ test or motor skills test we had off the shelf
without considering if it was applicable to drug-exposed children," Lester
said. Now researchers are composing a new battery of tests that will
examine what Lester calls the four A's: Attention (how well a child can pay
attention and screen out stimuli), Arousal (how much a child cries and his
consolability), Affect (interaction with parents and peers) and Action
(motor activity and coordination).

"With these tests, if we discover there's nothing wrong with these kids,
there's really nothing wrong," Lester said.

Much of the evidence so far is anecdotal.

Natalye Henderson, children's activities coordinator at Star of Hope
Transitional Living Center, said, "My observation is that the children I
know to have been exposed to it are more hyperactive and have shorter
attention spans. Even if you put them in a room with no distractions,
they'll get bored faster than other children. They'll use their own bodies
as distractions: play with their hair, look at their hands."

Lester agreed.

"We know we're no longer losing a generation. But when they do show effects
is when you stress them out, tweak them a little bit," he said.

These observations are affirmed by a pilot study at Wayne State University
in Detroit, in which teachers, not knowing which children were
crack-exposed and which were not, rated the exposed children as
significantly less attentive than their non-exposed peers.

Robbins calls the children's conformance to the crack baby stereotype the
"self-fulfilling prophecy syndrome."

"The worst thing you can do to a kid is label them. We see these behaviors
in children because we expect to see them, and we reward them when we do
see them. So the children live up to our expectations for them. Even
infants are very adept at learning to play to expectations," Robbins said.

As the first "crack babies" enter high school, the prognosis is better than
anyone anticipated, with one caveat. "If there's early intervention, these
children can catch up to their peers. But the home environment has to
change. If they go back to violence and chaos and neglect they won't catch
up," Edwards said.

She echoed what national experts are saying: The biggest hazard for these
children is not that they are born as crack babies but that they are raised
by crack mothers. That is immensely more difficult to overcome.

Copyright 1998 Houston Chronicle

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