The Myth of Crack Mothers and Babies

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

This Sunday, I, along with thousands of other moviegoers, will tune in to watch the Hollywood stars parade across the red carpet. One film predicted to win big at this year’s Oscars is Precious, the story of a young African American woman who shows remarkable resilience in the face of incredible odds—including her mom’s physical and emotional abuse. The mother is an unemployed woman without ambitions who admonishes her daughter for pursuing an education, rather than simply living on welfare checks.

While Mo’Nique tackles the role beautifully, New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently pointed out that her character revives the 1980s myth of the crack-addicted black mother. Reagan-era anxiety that so-called “crack babies” would overwhelm the healthcare system and create an enormous burden on American taxpayers later proved to be unfounded.

Reading Blow’s column, I recalled a time when many mental health professionals, myself included, believed that this “crisis” was real. In the late 80s, as a young clinician, I even made the topic of “crack babies” a focal point in an intro psychology course I taught at Drexel University, where I was pursuing my doctorate. Most of my students were African American single moms returning to school to get their associates degrees in nursing. To make the class relevant, I decided to write the syllabus around current events. So, I brought in articles from TIME, Psychology Today, and other popular publications—all of which warned that scores of inner city kids, born with cognitive defects due to their mothers’ crack use, would soon become a nightmare for the public school system. My students, many from impoverished areas of Philadelphia that had been hard hit by the crack scourge, shared my concerns; the first group of children born to crack-addicted mothers was getting ready to enter their neighborhood schools.

As the years went on, however, predictions of a “crack baby” epidemic were never borne out. Early case studies proved purely anecdotal—and not indicative of a larger trend. Later studies found that the problems originally attributed to a mother’s crack use, ranging from coordination issues to long-term, serious cases of ADHD — did not develop. In fact, alcohol has remained the number one deleterious substance, with fetal alcohol syndrome causing a more significant set of problems.

So, why did so many of us in the substance abuse and mental health community buy into this media-driven myth? The answer is that we went with the prevailing knowledge of the day. But, twenty years later—armed with more than just preliminary research on the subject—I am confident that we as treatment professionals have put the crack mother stereotype to rest. Now, it’s up to us in the field to speak out and call the media to account. When Hollywood perpetuates this tired cliché, we have an obligation to set the record straight and get the word out that this characterization has no basis in reality.

Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer, Phoenix House
Adjunct Clinical Professor, University of Pennsylvania
Scientist, Treatment Systems Section, Treatment Research Institute
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1 Comment

  • Thanks for commenting on this issue, Deni. Working on behalf of grandparents and other relatives raising children, usually because of parents’ addiction problems, I know how pervasive the “crack baby” myth still is. It is a source of anxiety and shame for caregivers and the children themselves. In COAF’s Prenatal Substance Exposure Toolkit, we emphasize over and over again that it is the post-birth environment that most heavily influences a child’s development, and not their initial presentation at birth. I hope that comments like yours can help to correct the stereotype, and provide dignity to families affected by parental crack addiction.