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Article: The Wrong Race, Committing Crime, Doing Drugs, and Maladjusted for Motherhood:
The Nation’s Fury over “Crack Babies”
o Late 1980s-1990s: the image of trembling, helpless infants irrevocably damaged by their
irresponsible unfit mothers. Became a symbol of all that was wrong with poor, black and
new mothers in the post-civil rights era.
The Media & the Crack-Baby in the Popular Imagination
Media began to report specifically on a new kind of child- the “crack baby”- which spoke
volumes about race, gender, poverty, welfare, drugs, the war on drugs, paternal & fetal
rights, crime, violence, desperation, responsibility as a human and as a mother.
What is the “crack baby narrative”? The variety of physical and emotional problems
faced by these children could be attributed to a single cause: prenatal exposure to crack
Children exposed to crack in the womb-medical conditions: cerebral hemorrhaging,
intercranial lesions, prematurity, birth defects, cardiac abnormalities, prenatal strokes,
heart attacks or death, extreme sensitivity to stimuli, unpredictable mood swings, high
pitched “cat-like” crying, tremors & difficulty interacting with others, emotional &
cognitive abnormalities. Unable to concentrate, prone to violence & destructive
behavior, averse to light, touch, and affection. Damage is permanent & irreparable.
Pregnant women were “inhumane threats to the social order” who willingly tortured
their helpless fetus.
The Image: black, poor, prostitutes with pimps, “acting like they care for their child”
Crack exposed babies were “supposedly doomed to a life of suboptimal intelligence,
uncontrollable behavior, and criminal tendencies” {pg.117}
A new breed of child was born in the inner city: they were loveless, tortured, and
demented. Different & somehow “less human.” Beyond the scope of salvation.
State Response to Prenatal Cocaine Use: Prosecute & Terminate:
o Legal & social services “attacked” the problem: Criminal prosecution of pregnant drug
addicts. No state has passed laws that make prenatal substance abuse an independent
crime. Prosecutors have used “innovative” applications of existing laws to bring cases
against pregnant addicts.
- Child abuse, neglect, vehicular homicide, encouraging the dependency of a minor,
involuntary manslaughter, drug trafficking, failure to provide child support, and
assault with a deadly weapon
- Example: Jennifer Johnson: a poor, 23 yr. old African American woman, became the
1st person convicted in the U.S. for giving birth to a drug-exposed infant. Charged &
found guilty of delivery of a controlled substance to a minor. Florida prosecutor Jeff
Deen argued this had taken place in the 30 to 90 seconds after the birth of the infant
and before the cutting of the umbilical chord. She received a 15 year sentence
including 14 years of probation, strict supervision the 1st year, mandatory drug
treatment, random drug testing, and mandatory educational and vocational training.
Johnson was further prohibited from “consuming alcohol, socializing with anyone
who possessed drugs, and going to a bar without first receiving consent from her
probation office”. The court also ruled that if Johnson ever intended to again become
pregnant, she must inform her probation officer and enroll in an intensive “judicially
approved” prenatal care program. Under Florida law she could have received a 30year sentence. The prosecutor said a sent a message “that this community cannot
afford to have 2 or 3 cocaine babies from the same person”. This was “the only way
to stop her from using cocaine”. Conviction was overturned.
- Example: Kimberly Ann Hardy: poor, single, black woman addicted to crack cocaine.
Michigan. Local hospital reported her newborn tested positive for cocaine at birth.
Mother’s urine tested positive. “High risk pregnancy” upon admission to the hospital.
She had received no prenatal care and delivered 6 weeks early. Prosecuting mothers
is a “form of caring”. Hardy’s case did not result in conviction.
- Prosecutors are white males, defendants are young black women, the drug is crack
and the rationale is safeguarding the health of babies. Prosecutors= “Crusadors”
- By 1992, 24 states had brought criminal charges against women for use of illicit drugs
while pregnant. All were poor, most were nonwhite. Nearly all convictions have
been overturned (including Jennifer Johnson) on the grounds that the charges
against the defendants were not congruent with legislative intent. Despite this fact,
district attorneys continue to bring pregnant women up on criminal charges.
- 71% of Americans believe that women who use drugs while pregnant should be held
criminally liable.
o “Protective Incarceration”- incarcerating expectant mothers who were convicted of
charges unrelated to their drug us to “protect” their fetuses.
o Hospital Policy: @ least 13 states require that public hospitals test women “suspected”
of drug abuse and they report those who test positive to social services or the police.
Mandatory reporting is often what triggers prosecution. Violating patients civil rights on
the basis of class and color.
o Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston: 6 lower class women, 5 black, 1
white, taken out of beds in hospital, handcuffed, detained for 3 weeks for testing
o Social Services: most frequent penalty for a mother’s prenatal drug use is permanent or
temporary removal of the newborn and/or other children. Can be removed right after
birth, often without a trial or hearing. Drug addiction= neglect= termination of parental
- Required Norplant (birth control) or go to jail???? What are your thoughts. “You
get someone with a terrible family history, stoned, no parenting skills- and we keep
giving back her babies because you don’t want to look racist or sexist” {pg. 121}
Assumptions Behind the Crack-Baby Narrative and Punitive Treatment of Addicted
o 3 assumptions:
1. The effects of crack cocaine on fetal and child development
2. The pregnant addicts targeted by the courts and the press
3. The efficacy of prosecution & punishment
o The Medical Effects of Crack Cocaine on Fetal Health
- Assumption that crack is far more dangerous than any other drug. Early reports were
DISCRMINATION). Never included chemical or environmental factors.
- Women who use crack are more likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, use other
drugs, and to be malnourished, less likely to obtain adequate prenatal care. Each of
these factors has been documented to seriously impair fetal development- in the
absence of cocaine.
- Sociocultural & environmental factors: many poor black American children are
exposed to a higher than average level of violence, neglect, and abuse in their daily
- Some say the social context of crack cocaine use is more likely to be related to poor
medical & development outcomes than to actual drug exposure of the fetus.
- Researchers now getting their work published to create biases/stereotypes. Most
were outraged how their work was being manipulated. Dr. Isa Chassnoff said “on
average, crack-exposed children ‘are no different from other children growing up’”.
- The placenta does a better job of protecting the child than we do as a society!
- It is false to presume that crack kids are affected in these detrimental ways. Too little
research about long-term prognosis.
- Most seem normal: socially, intellectually, cognitively, & emotionally with early
intervention & reduction of other risk factors.
- Receiving adequate prenatal care and curtailing drug usage significantly improves
developmental outcomes for cocaine-exposed infants.
- Crack not so different than tobacco or some other common street drugs. Damage to
body & brain is more so from postnatal environment than the fetal one.
o The Pregnant Addicts Targeted by the Courts and the Press
- Prenatal drug use is consistent across race & class lines. Very different from the
images we have been bombarded with for decades. No real differences between
white suburbia mom & black poor woman; public clinics vs. private hospitals.
- Significant racial differences in the drug of choice. White women= higher marijuana,
black women= higher cocaine.
- Despite similarities, black women were reported 10 times the rate of white
women. Poorer women reported more often the middle class women even though
marijuana & cocaine are required by law to report both. {pg. 124).
o The Health Care Profession: Should We Test? Should We Report?
- Guidelines for mandatory reporting & testing are often vague & underspecified,
leaving the implementation of policies up to individual doctors, clinics, or hospitals.
- Determining risk factors is often up to interpretation and most risk factors are based
on SES & Race. Healthcare providers also act on straightforward prejudice.
- Florida’s reporting policy “does not require documentation of maternal drug use, but
only a ‘reasonable cause to suspect it”
o The Efficacy of Prosecution & Punishment