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Mary Sanchez: The myth of the 1990s ‘crack baby,’ and its pandemic-related lesson | COMMENTARY

Jeremy Novak, center, of Jarrettsville, joins over a hundred other parents and students who gathered outside Harford County Public School Board of Education on Aug. 16, 2021 to protest the mask mandate for everyone inside school buildings when in-person classes resumed in the fall.
Jeremy Novak, center, of Jarrettsville, joins over a hundred other parents and students who gathered outside Harford County Public School Board of Education on Aug. 16, 2021 to protest the mask mandate for everyone inside school buildings when in-person classes resumed in the fall. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The deeply troubled lives of “crack babies” thankfully, never came to pass. If you missed that era of hyperventilated pronouncements, here is a synopsis:

When crack cocaine first swept through American cities, much concern and social anxiety arose about the long-term impact if women used the drug while pregnant. A widespread belief (often plied by media) was that children would be born hyper-aggressive, they’d fail in school, fracture already struggling families and would be challenged with any number of mental health conditions. All because their mother’s smoked crack before giving birth.

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Crack dealers in the ‘80 s and ‘90s preyed on poor Black communities to peddle the stuff, a fact that only ratcheted up the chastising, fear-mongering tones. The war on drugs mentality was a factor too — always ready to lean toward moral preaching and blaming, rather than seeking ways to help mothers with addiction.

Forty years later, no one talks about “crack babies” for one reason: They don’t exist. The dire life-altering conditions never came to pass.

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Longitudinal surveys found that the impact of a mother's usage was slight on the child. Low birth weights and a few points lower I.Q. scores were tracked in some of the children.

But other factors such as poverty, the stress of living in violent neighborhoods, and, yes, poor parenting, accounted for many of the issues faced by the children studied. And there were those who did fine, graduating high school, then college and starting their own, healthy families.

Some developmental impacts were overcome as the child aged, and the measurable differences overall weren't large, according to the Maternal Lifestyle Study, a large federally financed program based at Brown University.

The "crack baby" episode in American public health is instructive for today.

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The nation will likely soon face vaccine opportunities for young children, and schools continue to manage hybrid and masked learning for another year. The long-term impacts on children are a valid concern.

But, like crack cocaine, COVID-19 has been, and continues to be, easily politicized.

People have already been willing to push political points about masking and social distancing as it relates to children in school. Virtually all major cities have a viral Facebook video of a school board meeting where a parent has pounded about the horrific impact masking or online learning has had on children.

There is indisputable evidence that the pandemic and all that it has brought has affected children’s learning and, for some, their social development. How could it not?

But are children permanently behind and set up for failure in life? Is it impossible to even consider that what research is finding to be a two-to-three month gap for some in learning assessments can't be reclaimed?

The reply should be to monitor children's development even closer, especially lower income families, where the greatest slips in education attainment have been tracked.

And attention to young people's mental health should never be discounted. One recent study published by the Journal of Pediatrics found that at least 140,000 children under 18 have had a parent or other caregiver die of COVID-19, or a pandemic-related issue.

Just as the impact of crack was racialized and blown out of proportion, anything involving the pandemic and education can quickly take on a life of its own.

Pfizer and BioNTech are asking for clearance by the FDA. to give the vaccine to children ages 5-11, so conversations about the pandemic’s effect on children will soon escalate. The vaccine fears and hesitancies of parents will have to be respected and met with science-based facts.

This could be a reset. We need fewer politically driven arguments, less labeling of good and bad parents and attention to pushing back against wild assumptions of permanent educational losses.

Most of all, we don't need another sorry chapter in hyperventilated, stretched predictions meant to scare families, not help them.

Mary Sanchez (msanchezcolumn@gmail.com; Twitter: @msanchezcolumn) is a columnist distributed by Tribune Content Agency. She’s filling in for Leonard Pitts Jr. this week.

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