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D.C.’s Crack-Addicted Mothers Gave Up Everything – Even Their Kids

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"Dooney" Waters peers back to the front door which is always unlocked at his home in Prince George's County, Md. on September 3, 1989. In fact there is no lock on the door. He holds a small box of AA batteries.
(Photo by Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
"Dooney" Waters peers back to the front door which is always unlocked at his home in Prince George's County, Md. on September 3, 1989. In fact there is no lock on the door. He holds a small box of AA batteries.

Evelyn Green serves lunch at the N Street Village in Northwest D.C. It's a non-profit that works with women who have drug and alcohol addictions, women not unlike herself.

Her journey has been hard. She ran away from foster care in Baltimore when she was 15, and started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Soon after, around 1980, she moved to the District and was introduced to crack.

"First night I got there, in the apartment building I was living in, people were smoking PCP and drinking liquor, and I fit right in. I started smoking crack six months later. And from that day, until I came into recovery the first time, I never looked back," she says.

Green was receiving approximately $300 a month in government assistance for herself and her 10-year-old daughter. "Every penny that I got from my daughter’s check, it was going into the crack," she says.

She was so consumed by her addiction that Green says she wasn’t a mother at all.

"I couldn’t send my child to school, make sure she ate, make sure she went to bed, woke up, nothing happened that a mother would do for a child. I stayed up all night to get high, I stayed out all day to get high, the most important thing to me was to get high. I didn’t care about nobody else. My scorecard really and truly read zero," she says.

Green’s story is a familiar one to Schroeder Stribling, the executive director of N Street Village. Stribling says approximately 75 percent of the women she works with have been addicted to crack.

"Many of the women that we serve are older and they would’ve come of age and been in their teens and 20s during the time when the crack epidemic was really just exploding in our region," she says.

She says staffers at N Street Village recently interviewed nearly 300 women who struggled with crack addiction, and found that many of them suffered from various health maladies.

"Many of them had related health and other risk variables: 22 percent have Hepatitis C, 17 percent are living with HIV or AIDS, and 75 percent of them are tobacco smokers. So that’s a hint at all of the many domains of health, and well-being and family impact that their crack addiction has an effect on," she says.

But she says one of the most profound challenges these women have to confront is that they were not good mothers. "And the shame and the despair and sadness over this is really very deep. The loss of those relationships is not only very painful but also obviously has an effect on the future of our community," she says.

'The Hidden Monster'

Joyce Thomas witnessed what those fractured relationships meant for the District’s youngest residents. At the height of the crack epidemic, she ran the Center for Child Protection at Children’s National Medical Center in D.C.

"We were seeing large numbers of very unusual kinds of injuries to children that were coming through the hospital. We saw a high number of children, believe it or not, with sexually transmitted diseases," she says.

Thomas remembers a time she went on a house call with the police and found a two-year-old toddler, the child of a crack addict.

"And if you saw her sitting in a crib she had fractured arms, she had blunt force trauma to the abdomen, she had been hit so many times, we saw where her lip was split and it was never healed or sutured so it was deformed. She was developmentally delayed and she was sitting in her own feces," she says.

Thomas says neglect, which she refers to as “the hidden monster,” was common among addicts’ children.

"People were going out to use drugs, leaving small children alone. Sometimes nothing happened, sometimes the house caught on fire. This is how we knew. To add to that we saw a lot of children who were failing to thrive where they simply didn’t get any food," she says.

The craving for crack seemed to override any parental instinct. By 1989 a new trend emerged — mothers abandoning their newborns, a phenomenon that was known as the “boarder baby” crisis.

"I had a situation of a young woman who was on crack cocaine. The baby was 10 days old. She was not able to care for that baby. She had the wherewithal to leave the baby in a telephone booth. She wrote down the number of that telephone booth, left the baby there in a baby seat, went close enough distance away to see the booth, made the phone call to the phone [until] someone looked in the booth and saw the baby, who had been abandoned. They never did find that mother," she says.

Crack Babies

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, fears about crack ran high. Many people worried that pregnant mothers using crack cocaine would give birth to children who had serious problems — including poor health, academic challenges, behavior issues — and that the cycle of addiction would continue.

These children were dubbed “crack babies” and a “bio-underclass" in the media. But a 2010 University of Maryland review of studies found that while school children who were exposed to cocaine were negatively affected in areas such as sustained attention and behavior, there was little direct impairment in areas of growth, IQ, achievement and language. Research suggests the challenges students face are more often because of the home environment and related poverty than the drug itself.

But even if the dire predictions of a so-called “bio-underclass” didn’t come to pass, children of addicts struggled to thrive in dysfunctional circumstances. President George H.W. Bush talked about the impact of drugs on children in his nationally televised speech in September 1989.

"Not long ago, I read a newspaper story about a little boy named Dooney who, until recently, lived in a crack house in a suburb of Washington, D.C. In Dooney's neighborhood, children don't flinch at the sound of gunfire. And when they play, they pretend to sell to each other small white rocks that they call crack," he said.

'Drugs are why my mother don’t take care of me'

NPR’s Michele Norris, who was at The Washington Post at the time, wrote that story.

"My original goal was to write a story about Isabelle Field, who was Dooney Waters’ teacher. And I was spending time with her in her classroom. And there was one child in particular; you just noticed him. He was just a really cute kid with a big personality. And one day we rode the bus home with him. And when we saw his community, we realized that the teachers were part of the story, but the real story is really to focus on the kids," she recalls.

The details as Norris described them were hair raising. Waters drew a stick figure of someone smoking a crack pipe. He described how to cook crack. He was burned when his brother handed him a soft drink can that had been used to heat crack on the stove.

"He was right in the center of the action, and he was being raised by someone who just fell totally into the rabbit hole of addiction. He could describe how to make crack cocaine because he saw people cook up rocks in the kitchen. He saw people use cocaine on a regular basis — and if you talk to most six year-olds, they could describe the process for maybe, scrambling eggs. Or the kinds of things they see all the time. That was just his world," she says.

Dooney once said, “Drugs are why my mother don’t take care of me.” Norris wrote of how the drug has "obliterated" his mother's maternal instinct, and how what has once been a comfortable life was destroyed by crack. And though she has fallen out of touch with him, she hasn't forgotten him.

"I think of him often. And maybe it’s because of the changes that have taken place in the Washington area. I drive through some of the areas in D.C. and in Prince George’s County that used to house these big open-air drug markets and they are completely gentrified now. The place that he lived is now right next to the football stadium where the Washington football team plays. So I’ve been thinking about him a lot. And I would love to know what happened to his life," she says.

A Hopeless Future?

There were many children like Dooney Waters, struggling to survive in families consumed by crack. And decades after the worst of the crack era ended, some researchers now think the drug is partly to blame for one of the most stubborn and persistent problems in education today: the black-white achievement gap.

Tim Moore, an assistant professor of economics at George Washington University, says that the civil rights movement led to big changes in education such as increases in school funding, better access to healthcare and improved parental education. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, he says, the achievement gap was cut in half. But then just before 1990, "progress suddenly stopped."

Moore and his colleagues say that’s in part because of crack use, as well as the associated violence, increased incarceration and drug dealing opportunities that made students — especially African American boys — see their future very differently.

"Suppose you're a 15-year-old black male living in a place like D.C. and you looked at the people older than you and you worked out OK, ‘What's the probability I'm going to die before the age of 30?’ In D.C., it went from about a four percent chance of dying before you're 30 to about 12 or 13 percent," he says.

For white men and women, the probability of dying before 30 was under one percent. Moore says the idea of education is based on working hard now and seeing the payoff later. But if you believe there is no “later,” why would you study?

"It changes peoples' decisions about the future because that future doesn't look so bright and the benefits of getting more education or doing better at school is reduced," he says.

Moore estimates that the crack epidemic is responsible for between 40 to 75 percent of the drop in the high school graduation rate for black males. "If you're on the margin between deciding to stay that extra year or get some immediate cash, the idea that you might be locked up or dead in a few years really can affect which way you go," he says. (See the full study here.)

A New Child, New Hope

Evelyn Green, the former addict who’s now a manager at N Street Village, laughs a lot these days with her daughter Latasha. But Latasha says it wasn’t always like this. "She was on drugs. I actually caught her one day. I was like 12. I was angry," she remembers.

One time, after the police raided her house, Latasha went to live with relatives. She eventually dropped out of school.

"I never did homework. I didn’t have any place to sit down and do homework, to concentrate and no one to help me. I would get into trouble with teachers and when they would say they were going to call my mom, I would say ‘Go ahead. Our phone is cut off so you won’t be able to contact her,'" she says.

At 17, Latasha got pregnant. That was a turning point for Evelyn. She got clean. And now, Latasha says her mother is really involved in her grandchildrens’ and great grandchildrens’ lives.

"From my first child on up, she’s been there 100 percent. It’s like she’s trying to make up for when she wasn’t there," she says.

Evelyn Green says there’s another part of that making up — helping other women struggling to stay clean, because she says her life could have turned out much differently.

"I could have been dead out there on the streets, because when you’re getting guns pulled to your head, when you’re jumping in cars, getting guns pulled to your head, knives to your throat, guns to your mouth or whatever, a lot of people that I got high with is dead. I’m still alive. I can give testimony," she says.

Green says there’s still hope, even for people who’ve been struggling with crack for decades. She tells women still struggling with addiction that the first step is to give themselves a chance.

Kavitha Cardoza’s reporting is part of American Graduate — Let's Make It Happen!, a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


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