Cracked Assumptions

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Whatever happened to all the crack babies we used to hear about? Apparently not a whole lot, according to a new report from researchers who have surveyed more than 100 studies on cocaine-exposed children.

Newspapers in the 1980s were full of horrifying stories of crack-abusing mothers and newborns who were underweight, shaky, and cried incessantly. Estimates of national birth rates of cocaine-exposed babies range from 45,000 to more than 375,000 a year.

Fifteen years have passed since the height of the crack epidemic, but today the results hardly look cataclysmic: According to the study, cocaine-exposed youth have slightly poorer language abilities and score, on average, 3.26 points lower on IQ tests. In other words, the dire predictions that crack babies would suffer from major developmental problems have not come to pass.

“When you look at a lot of kids, you do find some kids who are damaged, but they are a small percentage,” says study co-author Barry Lester, the director of the infant development center at Brown University’s School of Medicine. “And it’s not severe brain damage, but the kind of problems that with early intervention can be corrected.”

Still, the researchers point out, these subtle differences may have big public health consequences. A small average decrease in IQ is enough to increase by half the number of youth needing special education. Depending on the size of the population exposed to cocaine as babies, that could cost up to $352 million a year nationwide.

And for kids growing up in poverty, explains Lester, small IQ deficits can be harder to overcome. “It has to be interpreted in context,” he says. “If you add cocaine to poverty, it can be double or triple jeopardy.”