Crack Babies: Twenty Years Later
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, I have a few thoughts about that aggressive immigration law in Arizona. That's my Can I Just Tell You commentary and that's in just a few minutes.
But, first, it's time to go behind closed doors. That's where we talk about issues that we sometimes avoid, often because of shame or fear. Today we want to talk about so-called crack babies. And if you think about it, that term tells you everything you need to know about the way children who are exposed to crack during the height of the epidemic were dismissed, demeaned and even feared.
At the time there were all manner of pronouncements about how children who were exposed to crack in utero were destined to a life of physical and mental disability. John Silber, the former president of Boston University went so far as to say that "crack babies won't ever achieve the intellectual development to have consciousness of God," unquote.
Two decades later, we're still learning about how drug and alcohol exposure by pregnant affects their children. But it turns out that children who are exposed to crack cocaine before birth are proving these worst case scenarios were all wrong. And we're joined now by several people who know about this. Joining us are Mary Barr and her daughter Nisa Beceriklisoy. Mary is an activist who discusses her past crack cocaine use while pregnant with Nisa. Nisa is about to go off to college.
Also here to provide expertise is Dr. Carl Bell, a clinical professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And I welcome you all and thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Dr. CARL BELL (Psychiatry and Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago): Thank you.
Ms. MARY BARR: Thank you for having us.
MARTIN: Now, Mary, I'll start with you. You have four children including Nisa. And you have spoken openly. You continue to speak openly about having smoked base cocaine and having used drugs during your pregnancy. And I wanted to ask, at the time, did you think about or was there any discussion about the effect that drug use might have on your babies?
Ms. BARR: Well, the crack baby myth hadn't been, you know, advertised as much as it was later on. You know, I didn't want to drink, I didn't want to smoke cigarettes, I didn't want to really do anything while I was pregnant. But one of the reasons I kept using during my first pregnancy was because, well, like, I always like to say if pregnancy was a cure for addiction, we could just go out and get all the female addicts pregnant, and, hey, no more addiction. But it's not a cure for addiction. So, even though I thought about stopping, it wasn't that easy.
MARTIN: I understand what you're saying. For example, I can personally tell you of women whom I know who were addicted who are addicted to cigarettes or to nicotine and who managed to stop. But did you think about it? Did you try? Was it something that worried about?
Ms. BARR: Oh yes. I looked for help. I looked for a program, actually. And there weren't any programs out. This was when I was living in Miami Beach, Florida. I did find a shelter, though, that would take me. And so, yeah, I was clean the last trimester of my pregnancy because I finally found this place that would accept me while I was pregnant.
MARTIN: Nisa, let's go to you. You're graduating from high school this year. You're heading off to Reed College with outstanding grades. Congratulations.
Ms. NISA BECERIKLISOY (Student): Thank you.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask, how did you become aware that your mother had used when she was pregnant with you and some of the other kids? Can you just tell us a little bit about how that made you feel?
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: Well, I found out when, really, one day she sat us down, me and my brother and she told us about her past and our past, really. And we really didn't have much of an idea before that. But it didn't really affect me that much. I just it was another it was something, it made me feel even empowered, really, because I was a normal kid.
MARTIN: Did you grow up hearing what was being described around kids who had been exposed to crack in utero? Were you ever exposed to any of that? Because, you know, kids can be mean. And, you know, sometimes when kids find out something about another kid, they just use it to kind of hammer them with. And I just wondered if you had ever had heard any of that kind of conversation and if it affected any sense of who you were or what you wanted for yourself.
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: Well, I told once I found out, I kind of told some of my friends, and they all kind of said, no wonder.
MARTIN: You mean in a mean way or in a funny way?
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: In a little bit of both.
MARTIN: But what did they mean by that.
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: I'm a little bit eccentric. Not that I'm, like not out of, really, the ordinary, but they all kind of thought, like, I'm really funny. I kind of make crack a lot of jokes and, like, I think they said that I had ADD and it was a little bit hurtful, but it was mostly just them trying to be funny. I think the last time was I was in my AP bio classroom and my teacher was, like, she was talking somebody brought the conversation to babies who were exposed to drugs and she said that oh yeah, crack babies, they have horrible lives. They all are born like they're about to die. They're addicted to drugs their entire life. It's just a very sad existence.
And I was just kind of in the back and I raised my hand and I said, well, there are cases where they're fine. And she's, like, oh, that's just very, very exceptional. And it, you know, made me feel like, well, you don't really know. And the article that came out in The Washington Post, that really kind of, like, showed her. Like, I love her. She's a great teacher, but...
MARTIN: Did you tell her? Did you tell her, oh, by the way?
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: No, I did not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: No.
MARTIN: Well, we're telling her.
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: Okay.
MARTIN: Give me her address. I'll call her up.
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: No. No. No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Give me her number. I'll call her.
So, Dr. Bell, let's bring you into the conversation. You clearly are old enough to remember all that was said around the crack epidemic and so forth.
Dr. BELL: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: And so I just want to ask you to take us back there and say, what was it that exactly was feared and why did people feel that way?
Dr. BELL: The fear was that women who were pregnant who were using crack cocaine would cause some brain changes in their infants. The concern since crack is a stimulant - cocaine is a stimulant - was that these areas in the brain that dealt with the issue of stimulation like attention deficit disorder or even bipolar disorder might be overly activated or somehow distorted while the baby's brain was developing. So there were all these really silly ideas about hyper aggressiveness, attention deficit disorder, manic depressive disorder in these children.
And to a great extent, this was sort of based on the really huge problem of fetal alcohol syndrome which does a lot of damage to unborn children's brains. I was a little less impressed by it because I had been treating patients for depression with antidepressant medications which stimulate similar areas of the brain. And unfortunately I had several women who were seriously depressed and I had to leave them on antidepressant medication that works similar to cocaine and they were pregnant and they had their children and I watched these children grow up to be 10 years old and I did not see any evidence of this horrible brain damage that was being proposed.
What I saw clinically was that women who used cocaine because the drug had such a magnetic pull, would often have a very, very difficult time being responsible and taking care of their children. Whereas with heroin addicts, people addicted to alcohol, they were more responsible in taking care of their children. But, again, the women who were drinking while pregnant had more children with brain damage. So it's a mixed situation.
MARTIN: There have been a number of news reports about this and a number of them quote the Maternal Lifestyle Study, which is directed by Barry Lester, a professor of psychiatry at Brown. And he's been telling us there are some differences in brain development, that they are reliable and persistent, but they're not big. And he says that, in fact, they're less severe than alcohol.
Dr. BELL: Well, alcohol...
MARTIN: Why would that be?
Dr. BELL: Alcohol is an extremely destructive drug. See, the problem is that cigarettes, nicotine and alcohol are legal and all the other illegal drugs are not, but the medical biologic reality is that alcohol and nicotine actually do more harm to a developing brain than all the other legal drugs combined. And so it's an oxymoronic kind of situation we find ourselves in.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Back in the '80s and the '90s there was a panic about children being exposed to crack cocaine in utero. Now some of those kids are all grown up and doing amazing things. And we are joined by one of them, Nisa Beceriklisoy, along with her mother Mary Barr and Dr. Carl Bell, who joins us from time to time to talk about medical issues and issues around mental health.
Mary, could you tell us little bit more about when you tried to get help, when you tried to get clean and sober, what were some of the things that you encountered?
Ms. BARR: Well, I think the biggest obstacle for me was there weren't any programs for...
Dr. BELL: Right.
Ms. BARR: ...women with children or pregnant women. So that was my biggest obstacle. There just wasnt anything out there for me. One of the things that was suggested was that I give up my children and I was, like, why? You know, my children are fine. We're, you know, we're watching "Barney" and singing Barney songs. And, you know, I'm asking for help because I want to maintain that. And I was finding it difficult to maintain. So that's when I asked for help.
MARTIN: Dr. Bell, do you want to add something to that?
Dr. BELL: Well, no. I mean, the manner in which this country treats pregnant women is reprehensible. We do not do a good job of taking care of women who have problems with addiction, who have problems with domestic violence who have children. And it's, you know, I mean, it's a public disgrace. Part of the hope is that the health care reform bill is going to do some nurse home visitation which might correct some of that.
MARTIN: Mary, how did you finally get clean?
Ms. BARR: Well, now, that's such a long story, but my best friends were the police because they kept arresting me. And the last time I got arrested they gave me a city year, which is eight months. And there was a program there on Rikers Island called STEP, the STEP program for women. And there was another program called SAID: Substance Abuse Intervention Division. And STEP: Self-Taught Empowerment and Pride.
And I joined the STEP program and during that program I was allowed to go to GED classes. And I took my GED test and I thought, okay, whatever I fail they'll tutor me in, but I passed. I passed the first time took it with a really high score. And that was the beginning for me because, you know, even before I was in the street I was raised being told I was stupid, I was, you know, ugly, I would never amount to anything. But here I got this high score on GED and I thought, wow, maybe I'm not so stupid.
MARTIN: So, Nisa, just before we let you go - again, I want to congratulate you on everything that you've done, everything you're about to do - you are of an age where a lot of young people start getting interested in drugs and alcohol, I do want to ask, how do you think your mother's experiences affect the way you think about these issues?
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: It really does make me more careful. I have friends who do pot and that's really prevalent in, really, any high school. And I just - I stay away from a lot of stuff, alcohol including. And it makes me really understand just because there are kids in my school who are addicted and it helps me to understand them and understand people who are addicted in general.
MARTIN: So, Dr. Bell, can we have a final thought from you as we go forward what we're learning about what happens to kids when they are exposed in utero to drugs and alcohol and also what happens later on? What kinds of things would you like to know additionally from a research perspective and as a society, what kinds of things do you think we should be thinking about as we go forward now that we have this sort of 20 years of experience behind us?
Dr. BELL: Well, I think it's important for society to move away from what I refer to as media epidemiology and media hypotheses and making all these generalizations about things because frequently they're flat out wrong, as it shows. So that's one critical piece. The other critical piece is it would really be nice if we understood that we needed more services for women who are pregnant or who have young children.
And then on a personal side, I think, you know, people like Mary, who grow up being told they're not worthy, they're stupid, they're whatever, sort of understand that whatever happens to them does not define who they are and in fact they have a wonderful potential and future and it's just a matter of getting a little older and transforming themselves into who they could actually be.
MARTIN: Dr. Carl Bell is a clinical professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He joins us from time to time to talk about matters of public health and mental health. And he was with us from Chicago today. Mary Barr is an activist and lecturer. Her daughter, Nisa Beceriklisoy, is a high school senior headed for Reed College. Yay. They were both kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Dr. BELL: Thank you.
Ms. BARR: Thank you.
Ms. BECERIKLISOY: Thank you.
MARTIN: And, Mary, Happy Mother's Day to you.
Ms. BARR: Thank you.
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