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Some Surprising News About "Crack Babies"

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In 1965, New York State pioneered an innovative effort to encourage the adoption of children out of foster care. New York recognized that children with special needs within the foster care system generally languished in care and faced severe barriers to adoption. Attempting to overcome some of these barriers, and acknowledging the unusual and long-term costs of caring for special needs children, the state began to offer incentive payments to encourage their adoption. Because this practice enabled many loving families to adopt children they otherwise could not care for, it was embraced by many jurisdictions. This practice was codified in federal law in the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980.

The passage of the Adoption Assistance Act was especially well-timed. In the late 1980s, this country experienced unprecedented social and economic crises. Homelessness, which began primarily among individuals who were part of the de-institutionalization process, spread to entire families with children. We also saw the explosion of the drug epidemic, which included a boom in the use of crack-cocaine, cocaine, PCP, and other drugs. This epidemic not only destabilized individuals, it also endangered families with children and entire communities. "Crack baby" became a common phrase in our language, and, increasingly, women abandoned their babies in hospitals. "Crack babies" were sensationalized by the media and written off while still infants. These babies were in for "a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority," according to columnist Charles Krauthammer. Well, these children are coming into adulthood now, and a recent Washington Post article sheds light on just where and how we got it wrong. What it doesn't point out is where we got it right.

The Washington Post followed some of these so-called "crack babies" and, among notable findings, "(I)n the two decades that have passed since crack dominated drug markets in the District and around the nation, these babies have grown into young adults who can tell their stories -- and for the most part, they are tales of success."

In the 1980s and 90s, the media warned that these children would grow into "superpredators." Presumably, then, we now should be seeing marked increases in crime rates across the country and particularly here in DC, which is among a list of cities with the highest rates of infant abandonment in the late 80s and 90s. But, The Post reported, "The national violent crime rate in 2008, the last year for which data are available, hit its lowest level since 1972, when the Bureau of Justice Statistics began its annual survey. According to FBI data for the District, from 1990 to 2008, murders dropped from 472 to 186, rapes from 303 to 186, and robberies from 7,365 to 4,154."

What explains these figures? What has enabled many of these supposedly doomed children to avoid the grim futures that supposedly awaited them? One significant answer comes from a legislative milestone: the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, legislation that helped lower-income families to adopt children out of the foster care system and to address the special and ongoing needs those children frequently carried. We have learned through decades of experience that when children in the foster care system are adopted into safe and loving homes, their outcomes improve markedly. And society at large shares those benefits.

In the decades since passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, the foster care and child welfare systems have confronted adult epidemics, including HIV/AIDS and substance abuse, that affect the long- and short-term well-being of children. These efforts have succeeded in increasing the number of children adopted out of foster care. Nonetheless, an alarming number of young adults continue to ''age out'' of the foster care system (nearly 30,000 in 2008) without finding a permanent family and the love, security, and stability that comes with it. These numbers, and the profound needs they represent, compel us to redouble our efforts to reduce barriers to adoption. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 both committed new resources to kinship care, adoption, and assistance for older youth in foster care.

Recently, the District of Columbia seized a crucial opportunity offered by federal child welfare law and enacted emergency legislation allowing adoptive parents and legal guardians to receive the same assistance as foster parents, until the youth in their care turn 21. Prior to this change, adoptive parents and legal guardians could receive assistance only until a child in their care turned 18, thereby creating a cruel disincentive to forge a permanent, legal bond to children. The extended assistance confirms what many of us have long known: children are not magically independent once they turn 18 nor are they self-sufficient when they turn 21. They still need help from loving parents and permanent, legal guardians.

The child welfare system must respond to constant change within our complex society, and policymakers continually must seek solutions that offer improved outcomes for children. Encouraging the adoption of older youth and children with special needs furthers the vision of foster care as a temporary arrangement, not a long-term solution. When family reunification is not in a child's best interest, kinship care and adoption are critical to establishing lifelong family connections. Foster children, like all children, deserve no less than a safe, loving, and permanent home.