Cocaine, kids are the markers in one woman's troubled existence

December 16, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

TULSA, Okla. -- A year after getting shot by the father of her twins, two days after seeing her nephews charged in a gang-related murder and the day after police arrested her husband on a cocaine possession charge, Vickie Lynn Alexander smoked $100 worth of crack, went into labor and gave birth to her sixth cocaine baby.

She named him Ruben Jr.

Ruben had cocaine in his blood the day he was born, as had five of his brothers and sisters before him.

One of the sisters was born prematurely and died after a few weeks, her lungs and liver still undeveloped. Another child tested positive for cocaine and died too prematurely to be named.

In addition, Ms. Alexander miscarried at least twice and aborted one fetus conceived through prostitution. She also gave birth to four healthy, drug-free children.

That's six cocaine babies, four of whom survived, 10 births in all, and at least 13 pregnancies.

The short, plump woman with bleached yellow hair stands in the kitchen of her three-bedroom home on Tulsa's dingy North Side and uses refrigerator magnets with pictures of her children to keep the names straight and explain her family history.

She shuffles the baby pictures around like dominoes: These kids had cocaine; these didn't; these are in foster care; these are with their grandmother; when these were born, the district attorney filed charges alleging that she had delivered cocaine through the placenta.

Though she was never convicted of drugging her children, Ms. Alexander's persistent problem continues to infuriate law enforcement officials and frustrate advocates for women's and children's rights.

"All my babies are healthy," Ms. Alexander said. "I'm thankful, I'm happy, I'm proud of my babies, you know?"

A 1990 study at the Harlem Hospital Center in New York found that only 3.7 percent of the children born exposed to cocaine were low birth-weight babies. Cocaine babies were no more likely to die than other babies, it found.

The report showed that 83 percent of mothers who use crack also smoked cigarettes; 40 percent drank alcohol. Many doctors now say that cigarettes and alcohol pose the greater threat.

A report by the based National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education in Chicago found that children exposed to cocaine often have difficulty paying attention in class and learning abstract lessons. But the researchers also said that the child's upbringing might be just as important as his treatment inside the womb.

Children categorized as crack babies get treated as problem children and often suffer poor self-esteem. That makes them more likely to become substance abusers and to continue the cycle begun by their mothers.

In an effort to break that cycle, law enforcement officers have been trying to prosecute women such as Ms. Alexander. Tulsa's district attorney tried last year to prosecute Ms. Alexander for allegedly delivering drugs through her placenta to three children, but the charges were dismissed.

Sara Mandelbaum, staff lawyer for the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, has been among the lawyers fighting to protect the rights of women such as Ms. Alexander.

"I feel she has rights that need to be protected," said Ms. Mandelbaum, who does not know the Tulsa woman. "That doesn't mean I approve of what she does."

Punishing women for having babies is not only unconstitutional; it's also bad public health policy, Ms. Mandelbaum said. Women who fear prosecution for passing cocaine to their babies usually stay away from prenatal care and drug treatment. Often, they have their babies away from hospitals.

As a result, Ms. Mandelbaum said, public policy can hurt babies more than cocaine.

Vickie Alexander was a year old when her mother went to prison, leaving four children to be raised by their grandmother.

At the time, her mother was 27, single and pregnant with her fifth child. A boyfriend attacked her and knocked baby Vickie to the ground. The pregnant woman became so enraged she chased the man to his car and shot him dead.

She was found guilty of manslaughter and received a five-year sentence, but was pardoned after a year in prison. She gave birth to her fifth child while serving that sentence.

It was Ms. Alexander's mother, who asked that her name not be mentioned, who first called the Tulsa County Department of Human Services to report that Ms. Alexander's children were not being cared for properly.

"Her house was neat, everything folded, all the clothes put up, never no dishes dirty," Ms. Alexander's mother recalls as she fries potatoes and meat for two of her grandchildren. "She had beds for them to sleep in. She provided for them, but the thing of it is she would never be there."

She said she begged her daughter to have her tubes tied 14 years ago after the first child was born. "Before I could get it out of my mouth, 'Vickie, don't . . .' it was too late. She was pregnant again."

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