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Once written off, 'crack babies' have grown into success stories

Many children born to mothers who did crack in the 1980s and 1990s were written off before they could talk. But in the two decades that have passed since crack dominated the nation's drug markets, these babies have grown into young adults who can tell their stories, and for the most part, they are tales of success.

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By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ryan Reed Kaufman was 4 years old, unwanted by a mother who smoked crack while she was pregnant, living with a foster family who pacified him with NyQuil every night at bedtime. He had no reason to expect that the grown-ups who came to visit him one day at child protective services might take him home with them.

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But he knew enough to try. When they handed him a coloring book, he stayed within the lines as best as he could. When they gave him a box of Legos, he asked to build a house. When it was done, he placed a toy boy inside it and then asked, "Who will take care of the little boy?"

Ryan recalls that moment only vaguely, but he's heard the story since that meeting in 1992, back when the term "crack baby" was used to describe children such as him and experts predicted that children born to addiction would become a biological underclass, super-predators who would cause the crime rate to surge, a lost generation.

John Silber, then president of Boston University, spoke of "crack babies who won't ever achieve the intellectual development to have consciousness of God."

"Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said in 1989.

They were written off even before they could talk. But in the two decades that have passed since crack dominated drug markets in the District and across the nation, these babies have grown into young adults who can tell their stories -- and for the most part, they are tales of success.

Many of the crack-exposed infants ended up as boarder babies, abandoned at the hospital by parents who couldn't care for them. Some have been troubled throughout their lives. But national crime rates, predicted to soar when the children came of age, have instead dropped to record lows. Despite decades of research, it can be hard to parse whether children born to crack-addicted mothers have struggled because of early exposure to drugs, troubled upbringings or simple teenage defiance.

It was at the height of the crack epidemic that a little girl named Marika came to live with Eunice Boone. Her Capitol Heights house was known as the "reject home," because she would take the children no one else wanted. After Marika was born, Boone said, the girl's biological mother told a social worker: "Didn't I tell you to let that [expletive] die?"

Doctors determined that Marika, born with cocaine and other drugs in her system, had cerebral palsy, which Boone thinks is related to her mother's drug use. She was not expected to live past the age of 5. This June, she will graduate from high school, and in August, she will turn 21. She cannot talk or walk on her own, but she loves music, coloring and wrestling.

"She's doing beautiful," said Boone, who has two biological children and adopted six others in addition to Marika. "With these children that are on crack, or any kind of drug, I think there's hope for them. It just takes time and patience."

A federal study found that about 22,000 babies were left at hospitals in 1991 by parents unwilling or unable to care for them. Washington had the third-highest number of any U.S. city.

"We called it a crisis because the space was just filling up in the nursery," said Linda Ivey Lewis, who as an administrator at D.C. General Hospital was instrumental in opening the boarder baby nursery, where volunteers could come in to hold the infants. "Worst case for me was for them to not be humanized."


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