Deal of a Lifetime
The urge hits, and Yolanda Ross is out her parents' door.
The 33-year-old mother needs to get high. She says she hates this thing inside her that makes her do this, but there's no fighting it tonight. Plus, she's got money, so she won't need to sell her body this time. Just a quick trip to Sunnyside, see her old friends, the pimps and pros and addicts who taught her how to score.
Ross tells of how she'll make her getaway: An old boyfriend she called will be waiting in the driveway in his car, thinking he's just taking Ross to visit her cousin. He doesn't know she'll be going to Sunnyside for drugs.
Tonight, she'll be leaving behind her parents' nice two-story home in a quiet, clean subdivision near Hobby Airport, leaving behind her daughter. Ross says she drank too much when she was pregnant, so the baby was born with all kinds of problems. Fetal alcohol syndrome. The six-year-old child is four mentally.
But Ross can't think about that now. And she can't think about her son, Steven, the boy she put up for adoption two years ago. She says she smoked crack while he was in the womb. Lord knows he's better off now.
She anticipates her evening, when the former boyfriend will drop her off outside her cousin's home. When he pulls away, she'll head down the road to a house where she knows she can score. Ross will knock on the door until a familiar face greets her. She says she'll be led to a back room where three or four others are getting high. She's got her money -- $10 for a rock -- and will wait for her turn.
Then Ross will fire up and find her peace. No one will bother her tonight. No rough johns, no cops. Even her conscience will let up a bit. She knows she's destroying just herself. There's no baby forming inside her, never will be.
Two years ago, Ross saw a billboard for an organization that pays drug addicts $200 to get sterilized. Steven was inside her then. She eventually gave up her baby, but she knew she couldn't give up her addiction. The sign seemed to know this. It said you can stay on the pipe, just don't bring another baby into this world.
Ross got her tubes tied after giving up Steven. A short while later, she got a check in the mail, along with the numbers for some rehab centers.
Four days after the visit to that back room, she'll talk about her plans to get clean. She wants to be a drug abuse counselor and help women like herself. She wants to be a good mother to her little girl.
But when she's in that back room, blazing up her last rock, Ross just wants to get high.
Laura Love has a girl like Ross's daughter, only hers is made of vinyl.
It's made by a company in Wisconsin as a classroom tool for kids who aren't sure whether in-utero alcohol consumption is a good idea.
Love reaches into a wicker baby basket and produces the doll. Born to a mama doll who drank too much, this infant has the flat forehead and overall alien features that indicate fetal alcohol syndrome.
She reaches back into the basket to produce the vinyl child's brother, crafted to look like the archetypal crack baby: underweight, with skinny limbs.
The friendly, heavyset blond grandmother throws a switch above the diaper, and it emits the shrill recorded wails of a real baby born in the throes of cocaine withdrawal. That's not all. The thing shakes. Hard. Love says crack babies shake so violently they can shrug off their skin.
These are the kind of blunt-force tactics that Love's organization, Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (CRACK, also called Project Prevention), uses to get its point across: Addicted people shouldn't reproduce. Their kids wind up in overcrowded foster homes where the public bears the burden of their outrageous medical bills.
So CRACK employs what representatives like Love call a simple, cost-effective solution: They pay addicts $200 to get sterilized or go on long-term birth control.
Founded in Southern California five years ago by a former IHOP waitress, CRACK has paid more than 800 addicts in 23 cities, including about 20 from Houston.
Love pursued a journalism degree in her native New Mexico but says she dropped out of junior college after her husband was killed in an oil field accident. She wound up supporting her son and herself by cutting hair.
She now directs the Houston chapter, which opened two years ago with funding from local philanthropist Jim Woodhill. He made his fortune in software and is on the short list of CRACK's major nationwide supporters. The list includes radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger and conservative Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
Love spreads the word by dropping off pamphlets at methadone clinics, social service agencies, probation offices -- anywhere an addict is likely to be found. She also cruises high-risk neighborhoods, posting flyers illustrated with dollar signs and a slogan that contains perhaps the two most important words in an addict's vocabulary: "Get CASH from CRACK."
Here's how it works: Addicts call the toll-free hot line to the California office, which sends them two forms. One asks for proof of addiction, which can include court papers, arrest records or a letter from a social worker. The other form is to be filled out by a doctor after the addicts receive Norplant, Depo-Provera, an IUD, a vasectomy or a tubal ligation. Addicts are responsible for the costs of their procedures, but in many cases Medicaid covers the expenses, Love says. Then the addicts just sit back, pop a vein, smoke a rock and wait for their $200 check.
It's not surprising that CRACK inspires controversy whenever it opens a new chapter. Critics such as the American Public Health Association and the National Advocates for Pregnant Women say CRACK exploits the disadvantaged and treats the symptom, not the cause. Black protesters in some cities have accused the organization of racism by targeting poor, African-American neighborhoods.
But Love says CRACK has dealt with more white clients than minorities. Like other CRACK representatives, she likes to spite critics by pointing to what CRACK considers its ace in the hole: Barbara Harris, who founded the organization, is a white woman married to a black man. They've adopted four African-American babies born to the same addicted mother.
That one crack-addicted mother kept having babies was no surprise to Harris, who in 1998 was quoted in British publications as saying, "We don't allow dogs to breed. We spay them. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted puppies, and yet these women are literally having litters of children."
Love points out that the program is voluntary. There's no compulsory sterilization, she says. Like the March of Dimes, CRACK is just trying to prevent birth defects, she says.
"We're not running down the street with a pair of pliers and $200 in our hands," she says.
CRACK also works by preventing abortion as a form of birth control -- which, according to the organization, is the addict's national pastime.
"We just happen to offer a reward for responsible behavior," Love says.
Love and her home office spread statistics on the number of drug-exposed infants born every year, purportedly from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but neither she nor Harris can produce the actual reports.
CRACK relies heavily on data from two studies: a 1995 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics stating that approximately one in ten infants is exposed to drugs in utero, and a 1997 report from the National Resource Center for Respite and Crisis Care Services that estimates from 550,000 to 750,000 babies are born each year exposed to drugs and/or alcohol.
Neither the National Institute on Drug Abuse nor the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, both under the auspices of the DHHS, has a figure for how many drug-addicted babies are born every year.
Local numbers are also hard to find. The best available Houston data comes from the Harris County Hospital District, which oversees LBJ and Ben Taub, the area's largest birthing hospitals.
Of the 10,000 babies born at those hospitals every year, about 2 percent have been exposed to cocaine, according to HCHD spokesperson Tina Foster. The district does not keep numbers for newborns exposed to alcohol and tobacco.
Drug-related problems are a larger factor for investigators at Children's Protective Services, according to spokeswoman Judy Hay. About 60 to 70 percent of CPS's yearly investigations of 37,000 children stems from parental drug abuse problems.
Explaining the reason behind the organization's eye-opening acronym, Love relays this anecdote:
An old farmer buys a mule from a neighbor. The man tries to take the beast home, but it won't budge even when he pulls, pushes and shouts. The farmer finally asks his neighbor how he got the thing to move.
The neighbor finds a big stick on the ground and smacks the mule on the head. The animal jerks to life and starts walking.
According to Love, the point is that the drug addict is like a mule. "First," Love says, "you gotta get their attention."
And that billboard got Ross's attention.
She passed it regularly on the way to her job at a nursing home. It said you could get $200 if you were an addict, if you agreed to get on long-term birth control or be sterilized.
Ross had been living hard for half her life. She says she started drinking at 14 and got on the pipe at 17. What started as childlike curiosity exploded into addiction. While pursuing a nursing degree at Texas Southern University, she soon blew all her student loans on crack. When that ran out, she turned tricks. "They would name a price, and it went from there," she says. "Very, very degrading."
Living what other hookers called The Game occasionally meant getting raped, getting thrown in jail and crossing her fingers at STD clinics, hoping she didn't have HIV.
When she ran out of tricks, she would hit her parents up for money. When they didn't comply, she'd threaten to burn down their house. Her mother and father were raising her daughter, the one born with fetal alcohol syndrome. When she gave birth to Steven, she knew she couldn't burden her parents with another child, so she turned him over to CPS.
She says she was already thinking about getting her tubes tied when she saw the CRACK billboard, and she went through with the procedure. "I just couldn't bring another child into this world addicted," she says. Unfortunately, Ross didn't follow the procedure; since she didn't call CRACK first, she didn't qualify for the $200. But CRACK sent her a conciliatory $25.
In her bedroom, Ross has two unframed photos of 20-month-old Steven. She doesn't know where he is, but his new family sends snapshots to her via CPS once a year. She says she has the right to see him when he turns 18.
She points to a Halloween picture of Steven dressed as a Hershey's Kiss, then asks her daughter, "Who is that?"
The girl says her own name.
"No," Ross says.
"Baby," the six-year-old says.
Ross smiles. "That's your brother."
On September 6, 1989, a camera crew followed President George Herbert Walker Bush through the pediatrics unit at Washington, D.C.'s General Hospital.
It was the day after he delivered his State of the Union address previewing his increased effort in the war on drugs. Ambling into a room for babies abandoned by drug-addicted mothers, Bush scooped up four-month-old Little Edward, showing many Americans their first crack baby.
Crack babies proved useful not only for Bush's drug war but for the media. Spurred by initial studies showing developmental problems for the offspring of cocaine-abusing mothers, newspapers ran headlines such as "Crack Babies: Genetic Inferiors." The crack baby was characterized by learning disorders, an inability to bond and incessant crying. And like Little Edward, these children always seemed to be African-American. They were what Douglas Besharov, founder of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, infamously called the "bio-underclass."
As Bush cuddled Little Edward, federal funding was running out for public drug treatment programs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that in 1970, 58 percent of the U.S. government's war on drugs went to prevention and treatment. That share was reduced to 28 percent during Ronald Reagan's first year as president. That number increased to 32 percent by 1990, about five years into the crack epidemic.
While the opportunities for drug-addicted women to get help in public programs receded, their chances of getting jailed for child abuse increased. In 1989, a Florida woman who used cocaine while pregnant became the first female convicted of delivering a controlled substance to a minor. A higher court overturned her conviction, but the case ushered in an era when pregnant, addicted women could be charged with everything from child abuse to assault with a deadly weapon.
Yet as far back as 1992, some medical experts said the earlier studies may have been too hasty in writing off crack babies. Doctors said the children's environment -- marked by poverty -- was a far bigger developmental factor than prenatal cocaine exposure.
By that time, the Chicago-based National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education had spent seven years tracking 300 kids who were born exposed to crack. Their studies showed that the IQs of the "crack babies" were equivalent to those of children who lived in similar environments but were not exposed to cocaine.
"The general consensus now is that there is no clear evidence that crack or other forms of cocaine in pregnancy cause direct harm to the developing brain," says Daniel Neuspiel, associate chairman of pediatrics at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
Neuspiel, who spent six years working with drug-exposed infants, says that while the answers aren't all in, studies indicate that secondary effects -- such as passing through an endless chain of foster homes -- are what impacts development.
Two years ago, Deborah Frank of the Boston University Medical Center mentioned CRACK in her widely reported study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In reviewing 36 previous studies on cocaine-exposed infants, Frank and four other doctors concluded that "There was no consistent negative association between prenatal cocaine exposure and physical growth, developmental test scores or receptive or expressive language."
The study also stated that "recent reviews and articles show that most initial predictions of catastrophic effects of prenatal cocaine exposure upon newborns were exaggerated."
Children can be exposed to a variety of substances in utero that have similar or greater development effects, including nicotine, Frank says. Yet there are no organizations like CRACK waiting in the wings to sterilize cigarette smokers.
For Frank, the issue is not that CRACK is merely raising the specter of sterilization.
"The issue is how it's done that it's predicated on unscientific perceptions of the children, and on a degrading approach to the women," she says. "What's implied is that these are not people who are worthy of the same approaches and respect that you would give to any woman in discussing health and reproductive issues."
Instead of spreading "scientific misinformation," a better approach would be to open up slots for prenatal care concurrent with drug treatment, and mother-child treatment programs after birth, Frank says. Pregnancy can be a motivating factor for many mothers to kick their addictions, but few treatment programs can accommodate low-income, drug-addicted expectant mothers.
Research indicates two factors prevalent with drug-addicted women: Unlike males, some of whom use drugs mostly for thrill-seeking, most women look at drugs as self-medication for intolerable pain, Frank says. And most female substance abusers are survivors of physical and sexual abuse as children, sometimes while in foster care.
The latter works as a barrier to treatment for many women, because they're afraid of having to give up their children to get help, Frank says.
"They're terrified of moving their children to the system so that they can get treatment, not only because they're afraid they're never going to get them back, but because they're afraid that the children are going to be hurt."
As for CRACK's cries that drug-exposed infants cost taxpayers billions, Frank says they're not the only ones who deplete the system. The same can be said about premature babies, children with Down's syndrome and adults with Alzheimer's disease.
Yet, she says, "Nobody goes around saying, 'Oh, but they should never have been born.' "
When it comes to drug treatment programs, there's one thing Frank should be aware of: They don't work.
At least that's how Houston millionaire and philanthropist Jim Woodhill sees it. He's onto the white liberal social workers' dirty little secret. That's why they don't like the CRACK organization, he says. The Chicago-born member of what he calls a working-class Polish family, Woodhill has done very well for himself and now wants to do the same for others.
Thirty years ago, when he was in his twenties, Woodhill traded in his clunky Polish surname and wandered wide-eyed into the computer industry. He co-founded Mission Critical Software, made a fortune and established the Woodhill Foundation, a heavy contributor to the arts, educational initiatives and CRACK.
Woodhill discovered CRACK two years ago, when he stumbled upon a magazine profile on Harris. He says he instantly recognized a crusade that could really make a difference. When he visited an urban neonatal ward filled with screaming babies born exposed to cocaine, it only solidified his beliefs.
"These are real live human beings as important and as wonderful and as perfect as my own son," he says. "I just don't see how we can allow this to happen to people from any stratum of society. These kids matter, they should matter. They deserve better than this. This just has to be stopped."
To critics who say CRACK takes advantage of people who are not in their right mind, Woodhill counters with his fail-safe drunk driving analogy: Even though your friend's drunk and not thinking clearly, wouldn't you ask for his car keys so he doesn't slide into a bus full of orphans on the way home?
"The only difference is, maybe one in 100 drunk driving episodes ends with a tragedy, while essentially every single one of our gestational episodes in our served population ends with a tragedy," Woodhill says.
"If we could get successful, productive members of our next generation out of these welfare mothers, we would take more. We'd ask them to have more babies for us," Woodhill says. As it stands, these babies might as well be born with a stamp on their forehead reading, "Pre-doomed: This kid's not gonna make it."
And that's where the dirty little secret about drug treatment comes in.
"I just don't understand how a society that is as rich as we are, and pretends to be as compassionate as we like to pretend to be, can have a set of people that basically [just] generate jobs for white social workers," he says. "Every cost to society is somebody's income, and you can tell by the reaction on the left that these guys are trying to protect more than a set of ideas. They're trying to protect paychecks."
Statements about doomed babies being better off not born make critics like Frank think CRACK is the modern face of eugenics. But Woodhill says that accusation makes him sick.
"The implication that the parents of the babies we're trying to prevent from being born drug-damaged are somehow not worthy, not good, it's another thing that I find abhorrent and unproven. I don't think [anyone's] done any studies that say that these people are any different than anybody else."
But someone has done such studies. Someone has done studies that say black people are genetically dumber than whites and that pedophilia can be good for children. And that someone is subsidized by the Woodhill Foundation.
Chris Brand's obscurity in the United States is offset by his infamy in Europe.
Edinburgh University fired the psychologist in the late '90s after he lectured about the harmlessness of "consensual" sex between adults and children over 12. Such relationships could be beneficial for the child if the child is paid for services rendered, one reporter quoted him as saying.
After hearing about Brand's downfall, Woodhill decided to pay him to do Web-based research for the Woodhill Foundation. Woodhill says Brand has nothing to do with CRACK and that his interest in helping Brand has nothing to do with Brand's views (which Woodhill says he didn't even know about prior to this article). He says he knew only that Brand was fired for voicing a controversial opinion, so Woodhill saw his chance to defend the First Amendment. Even the most inflammatory speech deserves protection, says Woodhill, who wears his ACLU membership on his sleeve.
Brand's psychological breakthroughs do not end with the discovery of the innocence of pedophilia. His research on genetics and intelligence led him to write a manuscript for a book called The g Factor, which contends that while African-Americans make superior basketball players and have an innate sense of rhythm, they have lower IQs than whites. Brand's would-be publisher backed out after reading the manuscript.
Reduced to waiting tables, the self-described "psychorealist" launched an online campaign against his publisher and former employer, which he now dubs Edinburgh Looniversity. Brand also uses his Web site to pitch The g Factor and his proofreading service, which he says will "quickly improve your essay, research proposal, research report or thesis."
His Web site also contains a wealth of scientific discoveries: Japanese people don't like the way white people smell (except for the minority of Japanese who have "Caucasian body odors"); Kwanza was invented by the CIA to divide black radicals; women are "inclined to deceitful promiscuity"; and "butch lesbians" have short index fingers.
Brand is a CRACK supporter and attacks publications like The New York Times, which has run stories critical of what he calls a program "that tends especially to decrease births to low-IQ black and Hispanic drug addicts, and thus to decrease the Democratic Party's future supply of voters."
Brand also supports eugenics, if done right. In one newsletter, he implies that the Nazis were onto something, but they "turned out to prefer the military and murderous rather than the slower eugenic route to success."
Upon discovering Brand's connection to the Woodhill Foundation, some American and European reporters assumed that Brand was acting as CRACK's European mouthpiece.
But Woodhill says there are simpler reasons for why he took Brand under his wing. One is to "keep the guy out of trouble."
Here's the other, according to Woodhill: "As a psychologist, he has a special expertise in what human beings can do and what they can't do."
In Peter J. Durkin's mind, drug treatment not only works, it's crucial.
Durkin, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas, sees therapy and sex education as heavy artillery in the war against addiction.
As for CRACK's methodology, "One, I think it's coercive, and two, I think it's simplistic," he says. "These populations are very vulnerable because of their addictions, and I think making sure they have treatment for their substance abuse is critically important, but I wouldn't tie contraception or sterilization as a requirement of that."
Durkin's figures show that, in Harris County, 25 to 28 percent of the population lacks access to employer-subsidized health care or government programs, meaning many people can't afford drug treatment.
"These dilemmas and these fairly dramatic stories illustrate the need for health care, contraception and sexuality education," Durkin says. "It is a symptom of a much larger problem of investor-driven health care in our community and in our country When we talk about these things, these are symptoms of much larger problems that defy short, easy, neat solutions."
Bill Winslade, who teaches medical ethics and law at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and the University of Houston Law Center, also questioned CRACK's single-issue initiative. While he has no problem with CRACK advocating birth control and sterilization, he believes that it shouldn't be the focus.
"Why not provide a network of support to get somebody out of that syndrome? It isn't just not having children, but improving their quality of life. Help them get a job, help them get counseling, help them get an education."
Like Durkin, Winslade believes CRACK could accomplish more by offering counseling independently of sterilization. He sees CRACK's methods as quick and dirty instead of thoughtful.
"I would feel much better about the whole process if it were an attempt to help people, not just prevent babies," he says. "Maybe their passion should be more widely distributed."
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