Study Finds Poverty More Harmful to Children than Pre-Natal Exposure to Cocaine 12/10/99

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A report in the December issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics concludes that the negative effects of poverty far outweigh the effects of fetal exposure to cocaine in terms of childhood development. The report follows a study of more than two hundred children from birth through four-and-a-half years, half of whose mothers had been frequent users of cocaine during pregnancy, and all of whom came from low-income families.

"The findings are overwhelming and persistent -- there may be a drug effect, but it's totally overshadowed by poverty," Dr. Hallam Hurt, the chairman of the division of neonatology at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia and the study's lead author, told a Reuters reporter.

The study found that all of the children tested below the norm, based on studies of mixed-income children, but that the cocaine-exposed children's scores were not significantly different from those of the others.

"A decade ago, the cocaine-exposed child was stereotyped as being neurologically crippled -- trembling in a corner and irreparably damaged. But this is unequivocally not the case. And furthermore, the inner-city child who has had no drug exposure at all is doing no better than the child labeled a 'crack-baby,'" Hurt said.

This is not news to many who have worked on the front lines in poverty-stricken communities, according to Lynn Paltrow, the program director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women and an attorney who has defended women against "crack mother" laws that seek to imprison pregnant women and mothers who test positive for drugs. "For ten years, this is exactly what I've been hearing from drug treatment programs, like Operation PAR in Florida," she told The Week Online. "It's no coincidence that the alleged epidemic of crack babies occurred after eight years of Reagan-era budget cuts," she added.

Nevertheless, the myth of the "crack baby" has been a persistent one. And for that reason, Paltrow said, studies like Hurt's are crucial. "It's extraordinarily important to have careful, well-constructed research to support what many of us who are opposed to the War on Drugs -- and Women and Children -- have long suspected," she said.

Phillip Coffin, a research associate at the Lindesmith Center, agrees. "This is exactly the sort of research that should have been done years ago," he said. "If we took the time to compare the effects of poverty, and hunger, and spousal abuse, and discrimination, and lack of good medical care to the effects of prenatal drug exposure, we'd find the former would almost always greatly outweigh the latter. Hurt has done an extraordinary, high-quality study."

You can read Phil Coffin's research brief on "Cocaine and Pregnancy," as well as writing by Lynn Paltrow and others on the subject of women and drugs, on the Lindesmith Center web site at

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Issue #118, 12/10/99 INTERVIEW: Lynn Curtis, President, Eisenhower Foundation | Republican Congressman, Senate Candidate Calls for Drug Maintenance Programs | Protesters Take Over Office of NYC Secretary of Human Resources | FDA-Approved Medical Marijuana Research Blocked Under New Federal Guidelines | Study Finds Poverty More Harmful to Children than Pre-Natal Exposure to Cocaine | Newsbriefs | Rebroadcast of Snitch Next Week | New Issue of Harm Reduction Communication Available Online | Deadline Extended for Year 2000 Drug Policy Foundation Achievement Awards | Editorial: A Typical Week in the Drug War

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