From Crack Babies to Oxytots: Lessons Not LearnedWatch the video
ARCHIVAL (FOX6 NOW, 11-27-13): REPORTER: They are the tiniest addicts.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 10-29-11):
REPORTER: The tragic symptom of a problem out of control in America.
NARRATION: Recent news coverage has focused on drug-addicted newborns as an alarming new trend.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 10-28-10): REPORTER: Oxytots.
ARCHIVAL (FOX 10 NEWS, 8-2-12): REPORTER: Hooked on prescription pain-killers their mothers are abusing.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, AMERICA LIVE, 10-28-11): REPORTER: The problem is exploding.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 2012): REPORTER: Some consider it a tidal wave.
NARRATION: But this isn’t the first time we’ve been warned of this kind of epidemic. In the 1980s, it was crack babies.
ARCHIVAL: REPORTER: The number of so-called cocaine babies is growing at an astonishing rate.
NARRATION: And back then the media predictions were even more dire.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 7-11-86): DR. BRIAN UDELL: They are at very high risk for cerebral palsy, mental retardation.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 10-25-88): REPRESENTATIVE GEORGE MILLER: These children, who are the most expensive babies every born in America, are going to overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come in contact with throughout the rest of their lives.
NARRATION: Nearly three decades later, have we learned the right lessons from the crack baby era?
DEVON STONE: I’m supposed to be a victim of that crack era.
FROM CRACK BABIES TO OXYTOTS
NARRATION: In the early 1980s, Dr. Ira Chasnoff, a young researcher at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, decided to study what he saw as a worrisome trend among his pregnant patients who had used cocaine.
DR. IRA CHASNOFF (PEDIATRIC RESEARCHER): Women were coming in and their babies were looking different when they were born. They had higher rates of prematurity. And they had higher rates of newborn seizures and other complications.
ARCHIVAL (MARCH OF DIMES, COCAINE’S CHILDREN): IRA CHASNOFF: A lot of the babies exposed to cocaine, are quite small. We think that that’s related to the use of the drug during pregnancy.
DR. CLAIRE COLES (EMORY UNIVERSITY, SCHOOL OF MEDICINE, PEDIATRICS): We had seen effects of alcohol, and other substances on children so we were certainly open to the idea that this was a problem. Cocaine was an epidemic. I think that it was something that the media, I mean, it became an exciting thing to talk about.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 48 HOURS, 2-27-86): REPORTER: Whatcha got? DEALER: Whatcha need? REPORTER: Whatcha got?
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 48 HOURS, 2-27-86): DAN RATHER: We call our broadcast 48 Hours on Crack Street.
IRA CHASNOFF: Soon after our paper was published, within days, we were getting calls from media all over the country, and started hearing the term crack babies.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 10-25-88): TOM BROKAW: Born to mothers with cocaine or crack habits.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 10-13-88): PETER JENNNGS: Despite all the warnings, a growing number of babies are being born already addicted to cocaine.
CLAIRE COLES: As it got out into the world it became this, this, phenomenon.
ARCHIVAL (CBSNEWS, 9-11-85): REPORTER: Twenty-three babies were born to the cocaine using women in this study.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 10-24-85): REPORTER: Because the problem has appeared so suddenly, there are few reliable statistics.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-7-90): REPORTER: The number of so-called cocaine babies is growing at an astonishing rate.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 2-18-86): REPORTER: The number of babies born addicted has risen more than 500 percent.
NARRATION: Chasnoff told reporters that cocaine-exposure was causing some babies to be born with brain damage and that others were overwhelmed by even simple eye contact with the mother.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS): IRA CHASNOFF: These children are not normal in the sense that they are going to be able to enter the classic schoolroom and function in large groups of children.
NARRATION: Other researchers and doctors echoed Chasnoff’s conclusions and a host of seemingly recognizable symptoms took hold.
ARCHIVAL (MARCH OF DIMES): IRA CHASNOFF: One of the things that we see about babies who have been exposed to cocaine is they tend to be very tremulous and shaky…. Very fine kinds of tremors.
CLAIRE COLES: We looked to see if we would find a lot of the effects that were reported. And we were saying, “Well, we aren’t seeing this.”
NARRATION: Dr. Claire Coles was reaching a different – though equally startling conclusion about crack babies, based on her study of infant behavior at Emory University.
CLAIRE COLES: The effects didn’t seem consistent with the action of the drug itself… Many of the children who were the so-called, classic cocaine babies were premature babies and the symptoms that were seen on the videos, on television – the you know the tremoring arms and all that was prematurity. You could have taken any premature baby and gotten the same image. I think that people got very focused on cocaine is the cause of this rather than thinking, substance abuse is a cause of this, maternal lifestyle is the cause of this, social issues are the cause of this.
NARRATION: But Coles’ findings didn’t fit within the narrative of what had become a national scare.
ARCHIVAL: PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Cocaine – beep, beep, beep. Crack. Beep, beep, beep. If you use drugs while pregnant, your baby can die.
CLAIRE COLES: There’s a whole lot of people who feel that if you can just scare people sufficiently about something, that that’s better than actually telling them the truth about something because that will prevent them from doing bad things.
ARCHIVAL(ABC NEWS, 7-12-89): DIANE SAWYER: The American agenda tonight poses this question. What would you do about pregnant women who use drugs and pass those drugs onto their babies?
NARRATION: By the late 1980s, Chasnoff’s findings were being used to justify cases charging pregnant cocaine users as child abusers, drug dealers and killers.
IRA CHASNOFF: I was at first stunned, and then angry that they would distort the information. That’s when I started realizing how a lot of this can be taken out of context and used to bolster any kind of argument.
CLAIRE COLES: People may have felt that they were doing the right thing, but I mean the idea that one would prosecute a pregnant woman and use this kind of not very accurate research to do so is very disturbing.
NARRATION: As the prosecutions continued, crack babies grew to toddlers.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-4-90): NEWS REPORT: No-one knows how many there are, or even how best to identify them. But educators suspect that tens of thousands of crack kids are in kindergartens in inner cities, in suburbia, even in small town America.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 10-13-88): NEWS REPORT: It now threatens to create an entirely new underclass of children, unable to care for themselves, of infants born to suffer.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-7-90): PETER JENNINGS: In the United States this year, at least 100,000 crack babies will be born. Today the government said it will cost $5 billion dollars a year to care for such babies and money doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
DEVON STONE: I’m supposed to be a victim of that crack era. I was supposed to be disruptive. Mentally unstable. I wasn’t supposed to reach the point where I am now. The initial hypothesis was that drug abuse would lead to huge physical deformities, huge mental deformities in children, and, you know, in myself, I didn’t see any of those things, so it would be easy for me to believe that science doesn’t hold true.
NARRATION: Three decades since Chasnoff’s initial research – which focused on just 23 babies – long-term studies have found only subtle changes in the brains of cocaine-exposed research subjects like Stone.
CLAIRE COLES: There’s no particular evidence of this social-emotional deficit You’re not seeing really broad scale severe developmental problems as was predicted. The schools have not been be overwhelmed by the flood of cocaine exposed children.
NARRATION: In fact, Stone became the first in her family to graduate from college.
DEVON STONE: In learning that I had been exposed I kind of told myself, I’m not going to make this an issue. Whatever I have to do to get around what the effects may be I’ll do that.
CLAIRE COLES: The paper was a very preliminary kind of finding. And it really shouldn’t have been generalized to the extent it was. Which I believe that Dr. Chasnoff eventually came to himself, and said that he felt that this didn’t really represent the whole of the situation.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 9-27-00): CYNTHIA MCFADDEN: Dr., lets go to you on this question. You’ve studied this – perhaps one of the first people to study this. How does cocaine use affect newborns?
IRA CHASNOFF: Well, there is no question that cocaine use during pregnancy has some real effects on the unborn and on the newborn child, uh, but these effects are not devastating and can be addressed through treatment for the pregnant woman and for the child.
NARRATION: Over time, Chasnoff did distance himself from some of the extreme pronouncements he was quoted as making in the early days.
IRA CHASNOFF: I probably talked too much or gave long-winded explanations, which were completely cut out. It was one of those feelings where you just feel completely out of control.
DEVON STONE: It wasn’t even a natural disaster or a war. It was a drug that caused so much harm among my generation and my parent’s generation.
CLAIRE COLES: Certainly cocaine was contributing to this problem, but they got very focused on it as the only sole cause of it. I think people still believe the cocaine story but alcohol is much more of a problem than cocaine because there is much more alcohol used and it has much more severe effects. I think if you’d say something three times out loud people take it as fact and also I think there are certain ideas that people want to believe that really fit in with cultural stereotypes, and it’s hard to get rid of those.
TEXT ON SCREEN: In 2012, more than 25 years after the media coverage of “crack babies” began…
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, ROCK CENTER, 7-5-12): BRIAN WILLIAMS: For those of us who were reporters back in the 1980s it was an awful new trend – a generation of crack babies born addicted to drugs because of their mother’s habit. Sadly, a new generation has meant a new habit:
ARCHIVAL (FOX 10 NEWS, 8-2-12): NEWS ANCHOR: Prescription painkillers. It’s an alarming trend sweeping the nation.
LYNN PALTROW (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ADVOCATES FOR PREGNANT WOMEN): When we started to see the latest reports you literally had major newscasters reignite the mythology of the “crack babies” having missed all of the retractions that all of the media had to make about the epidemic that wasn’t.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, AMERICA LIVE, 10-28-11): JOHN ROBERTS: This current crisis is far worse than the crack baby epidemic ever was.
LYNN PALTROW: There was a déjà vu quality to it.
ARCHIVAL (AL JAZEERA, 3-31-15):
NEWS REPORT: Faced with a skyrocketing number of babies born addicted, some states are taking harsh measures against the mothers.
ARCHIVAL (AL JAZEERA, 4-1-15): STATE REPRESENTATIVE TERRY WEAVER: These mothers are the worst of the worst.
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 7-15-15): CHRIS HAYES: A new Tennessee law that criminalizes mothers using drugs while pregnant.
ARCHIVAL (AL JAZEERA, 4-1-15): STATE REPRESENTATIVE TERRY WEAVER: These ladies are not thinking of prenatal care.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 7-14-14): REPORTER: She’s charged with assaulting her daughter before the baby was born.
ARCHIVAL (AL JAZEERA, 4-1-15): TERRY WEAVER (STATE REPRESENTATIVE): I want to emphasize what they’re thinking about and that is just money for the next high.
CLAIRE COLES: Women who are substance abusing during pregnancy need treatment. There’s very little help available.
LYNN PALTROW: The babies who are exposed to opioids do need support.The problem with responding to the issue of drug use by women who become pregnant as if it deserves punishment, is that you actually increase the risks to maternal, fetal and child health. This is the position of every leading medical group.
NARRATION: Claire Coles says that she wishes we would end up learning the right lessons this time around.
CLAIRE COLES: We go through these fads in our society. We don’t solve the first thing we just go on to the next thing. I’m not sure that whatever it is driving our culture to enjoy these fads is going to change.