Cocaine babies can be helped, the experts say

February 16, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- One of the infants in the sterile hospital room wailed disconsolately, frantically flailing its tiny arms and legs as children born to crack-using mothers often do. Next to her, at the Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan, another child slept peacefully, her face sculpted in an angelic expression.

The contrast seemed to confirm what everyone knows about cocaine-exposed babies. But contrary to such assumptions, hospital officials said it was the peaceful child, not the cranky one, whose mother had been using the drug.

Eight years after crack hit cities around the country, and concern about a generation of "crack babies" began spreading, medical experts say their worst fears are not being realized: While up to ......TC third appear to have been seriously affected, 20 to 40 percent seem unscathed.

Most encouragingly, the experts say, those who have been harmed by cocaine need not be written off as a lost generation, but can be greatly improved with therapy and other special attention. Not all recover fully, but many do.

"I have yet to see one of these children who cannot improve significantly," said Dr. Dan R. Griffith, a developmental psychologist at Northwestern University Medical School.

None of the therapeutic procedures is new or revolutionary. But they are reaching only a small fraction of the cocaine-exposed children.

Dr. Ira J. Chasnoff, president of the National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education, estimates that more than 500,000 children have been exposed to cocaine and other drugs, and that perhaps 300,000 have suffered some damage. He estimates that no more than 10 percent have received treatment, leaving the problems of most of the children to be discovered when they turn up in kindergarten or the first grade.

In Chicago, in one of the longest-running research projects on cocaine-exposed children in the country, Dr. Chasnoff and a team of specialists found that 60 percent of the infants born to 300 cocaine users suffered some degree of central nervous system disturbance. But the specialists began working with mothers and infants immediately after birth, and within three years about half were developing normally.

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