The Kids Are (Kinda) Alright: “Crack Babies” Speak Out

by Latoya Peterson

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Theresa Vargas examines the lives of former “crack babies” -  the children who carried 1980s and 1990s headlines who are now adults.  As Vargas reports:

Ryan Reed Kaufman was 4 years old, unwanted by a mother who smoked crack while she was pregnant, living with a foster family who pacified him with NyQuil every night at bedtime. He had no reason to expect that the grown-ups who came to visit him one day at child protective services might take him home with them.

But he knew enough to try. When they handed him a coloring book, he stayed within the lines as best as he could. When they gave him a box of Legos, he asked to build a house. When it was done, he placed a toy boy inside it and then asked, “Who will take care of the little boy?”

Ryan recalls that moment only vaguely, but he’s heard the story since that meeting in 1992, back when the term “crack baby” was used to describe children such as him and experts predicted that children born to addiction would become a biological underclass, super-predators who would cause the crime rate to surge, a lost generation.

John Silber, then president of Boston University, spoke of “crack babies who won’t ever achieve the intellectual development to have consciousness of God.”

“Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority,” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said in 1989.

They were written off even before they could talk. But in the two decades that have passed since crack dominated drug markets in the District and across the nation, these babies have grown into young adults who can tell their stories — and for the most part, they are tales of success.

Vargas then goes over the stories of a few different children who were born with drugs in their system and largely abandoned to the care of the state.

Some of the stories are horrifying:

It was at the height of the crack epidemic that a little girl named Marika came to live with Eunice Boone. Her Capitol Heights house was known as the “reject home,” because she would take the children no one else wanted. After Marika was born, Boone said, the girl’s biological mother told a social worker: “Didn’t I tell you to let that [expletive] die?”

Marika is now 21 years old, living with cerebral palsy, and about to graduate from high school.  Boone, her adoptive mother, says she is “doing beautiful.”

Jeff Anzelone spent five months in the boarder baby wards at D.C. General before Debbie Anzelone fell in love with the infant and agreed to adopt him.  Anzelone has ADHD, but otherwise lives a normal life:

“Honestly, I had the perception that crack babies were born messed up, that they went through their life having problems,” said Jeff, who was a B student in high school, played sports and has worked part time since he was 14. He works at Starbucks and attends Howard Community College, aiming for a degree in accounting. “I don’t see other kids doing things that I don’t see myself capable of doing.”

However, all the stories were not as positive.  Ryan, from the intro, was placed in an abusive foster home environment and had a lot of transition issues:

Ryan remembers the foster home where he lived when he met the two women who eventually adopted him — Linda Kaufman and Melinda Reed — as a place where the other children took half his Legos and tore his book, where beatings were doled out regularly.

“It was bad,” said Ryan, 22. “If I had stayed there, I would definitely have had a lot more anger problems than I already do. For the longest time, I didn’t let anyone touch me, and I definitely didn’t put up with people.”

Ryan, whose ADHD was diagnosed early on, jumped off a table and kicked a teacher in nursery school. As a teenager, “if he wanted something and didn’t get it, he’d explode,” Kaufman said. As an adult, he’s been in trouble with the law and is serving time in Arlington County’s detention center on charges of grand larceny, driving under the influence and assaulting a police officer.

“You hope and you pray and you say, ‘I love you’ a lot,” Kaufman said. But she sometimes questioned whether her parenting skills were good enough to counter his rough start.

Ryan, however, doesn’t see anything that has happened as a negative – he mentions that he believes he will ultimately be successful, something he attributes to the loving care of his adopted parents.

I enjoyed Vargas’ article, but I still have questions surrounding the role of race.

Crack was a drug with a heavy racial identification – while all types of people used it, the most prominent image of a crack user was a black person.  Vargas’ article discusses how experts learned from the crack baby hysteria and have not rushed to proclaim dire circumstances for children that are turning up meth exposed.  But is the lack of hype due to meth being a white identified drug?  Also, the pictorial accompanying the article focuses on Anzelone, and his nuclear family.  Was there a difference in recovery and allocation resources by race? If so, how did that impact the lives and fates of these kids?