March 20, 2005

"Crack Babies" Revisited

Julie Saltman and Vanessa of feministing flag a new ACLU report detailing how "America's war on drugs is inflicting deep and disproportionate harm on women - most of them mothers." Some of the findings:
  • Many women are ensnared in drug investigations despite peripheral involvement, sometimes solely because they failed to turn in their partners to police. Sentencing laws fail to consider factors such as physical abuse or economic dependence that may draw women into drug abuse or deter them from notifying authorities of a partner's drug activity.

  • Treatment programs, to the extent they exist, often are tailored for men and prove relatively ineffective for women.

  • Black and Hispanic women are imprisoned for drug offenses at higher rates than white women even though their rates of illegal drug use are comparable. Factors include prosecutors' decisions, policing tactics and selective testing of pregnant minority women for drug use.

  • Most imprisoned women, and relatively few imprisoned men, leave behind children for whom they were the sole primary caretaker. The separation can be shattering for mothers, who may lose parental rights, and for children, thousands of whom are placed in foster care at state expense.
  • It's fucked up, and all of these deserve outrage, scrutiny, correction, the works, and kudos to the ACLU for putting this together, but it's worth talking a little bit more about the second item there, the inadequate drug treatment for women. It's true that treatment programs are pretty skimpy in general, and hard to come across for men or women, but women have suffered special discrimination in this regard. It wasn't until very late in the day—the 1970s, if I recall—that medical literature even began addressing the issue of drug addiction among women. And no, it's not the same thing: More often than not, drug use among women is related either to spousal abuse, or some situation involving caring for children, or whatnot, and the more effective treatment programs try to address this wide-ranging and exceedingly complex nexus of issues. But most programs don't.

    In 1985, however, female drug use did start to get a good deal of attention—but not in a positive way. A researcher published a widely-publicized paper on the hideous effects of cocaine use among pregnant mothers on their babies. As it turned out, the study was badly flawed (lots of things cause birth defects, but cocaine doesn't seem to be a big one), but this was the era of "crack babies" and "welfare queens," so naturally the study sparked a media frenzy. State legislatures cracked down severely on drug use among pregnant women—drug users would be shut off from welfare, or have their children taken away, or get thrown in jail. So mothers-to-be, quite predictably, shied away from getting treatment or counseling, or would get abortions when they didn't need to. It was all quite horrendous.

    Today, things are getting better. A handful of states have changed their laws on drug use among pregnant women. Still, the focus seems to be more on keeping children away from these reckless mothers than in actually steering women towards effective treatment programs. Not only is this wasteful—the ACLU report notes that "imprisoning a mother and placing a child in foster care is seven times the cost of an intensive one-year drug treatment program"—but most of the time it's bad policy, driven more by residual outrage from the Reagan years than any real attempt at fixing the actual problem.
    -- Brad Plumer 6:02 PM || ||