It was an unexpected discovery. Poverty had a more substantial impact on children than exposure to crack cocaine in utero.
Dr. Hallam Hurt, formerly of Albert Einstein Medical Center, led a team of researchers for more than two decades, as they closely followed a generation of “crack babies” born to drug users during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s.
At the time, the popular press made dire predictions for the children of addicts. “That the children might grow up to have an IQ of perhaps 50 and be barely able to dress themselves,” Hurt said. “They would be scrawny and trembling. One quote was that they would be doomed to a life of certain suffering probable deviance, permanent inferiority.”
Hurt and her team set about monitoring more than 200 babies born in Philadelphia’s Albert Einstein Medical Center, including those born to mothers who tested positive for crack cocaine when the children were born. Almost all were from low-income families.
Hurt, a neonatologist now at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that, fairly early on they could see the children born to drug-using mothers didn’t look that different.
“Because of the cogent reasons to expect problems in cocaine-exposed children, we kept looking and we looked at more and more refined evaluations,” recalled Hurt. “We continued to look for these changes and we simply didn’t find them. But what we did find was that the group as a whole was performing poorly and lagging behind.”
The researchers also were making home visits and studying other, nonmedical factors in the children’s lives. They found the key contributor to the children’s outcomes, according to Hurt, in environment. The medical researchers ultimately found that poverty had the biggest impact on children’s development.
The neonatologist and her colleagues have become advocates of instruction in parenting skills, and literacy activities, things they say appear to trump any effects of drug exposure during pregnancy.
Hurt and her colleagues looked only at full-term babies. Crack cocaine can lead pregnant mothers to give birth early, which can, on its own, have developmental impacts on their infants.