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The drug babies.

The Drug Babies Most natural disasters are upon us with a suddenness that magnifies their impact--Hurricane Hugo was a case in point. There is little we can do to prepare; about all we can do is clean up. But some problems do provide a little advance warning. Comparisons between the recent earthquakes in San Francisco and Armenia have been paid in their references to the monumental difference a policy of preparedness makes in reducing property damage and saving lives.

There's a lesson in that comparison we have to absorb quickly, before our kindergarten and elementary school classrooms become the educational equivalent of another Armenia. Already in our schools is the advance guard of what will surely swell into an epidemic in a few short years: the "drug babies." The question for today is, what preparation are we making?

Alone, the terminology surrounding this problem is enough to bring a shudder. We are facing the emerging of what some are now calling a "bio-underclass"; a frightening proportion of the next generation of school children will have impairments which, in the words of Dr. Harold Nickens of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, may require the medical community "to define an entirely new, organic brain syndrome," based on the physical and chemical damage done to fetal brains by drug-abusing mothers.

The evidence is mounting and it is horrifying. Some studies have reported that as many as 15 percent of pregnant mothers report using illegal drugs or alcohol; experts fear the real rates may be double that. Newborn urine screening for cocaine in New York City and Oakland, California, has found rates as high as 18 percent. At D.C. General Hospital in 1988, 20 to 30 percent of the pregnant women admitted to being drug abusers, whether of cocaine, heroin, PCP, or "poly-drugs."

Perhaps most frightening of all is that doctors and other health care professionals can only speculate about what we may be facing. Cocaine-addicted babies present the worst problems. Early reports on afflicted infants point to poor body-state regulation, tremors, chronic irritability, and poor visual orientation. Among young children who survive such infancies, the symptoms now turning up in the classroom go well beyond "post-drug impairment syndrome," which are bad enough: poor abstract reasoning and memory, poor judgment, inability to concentrate, inability to deal with stress, frequent tantrums, a wide variety of behavior disorders, and violent acting out. Crack-using mothers are giving birth to addicted babies who are having strokes and seizures, who are born with small heads, missing bowels, and malformed genitals, and who will have what Nickens calls "as well as yet to be determined birth defects."

These children will be prominent among the next generation of special ed students and each of them may be a neurochemical time-bomb, likely to experience the same dysphoria and thought and mood disorders as a recovering addict, which is what the child is. We do not have anywhere near the knowledge base or the educational technology to even begin to create the appropriate support structure for dealing with these children. Nor do we have any realistic picture of what kinds of resources we will need to work on their problems. And do not forget, many of these children--perhaps the majority--will be caught in the same socio-environmental bind of disadvantage and abuse that contributed to their mothers' drug abuse in the first place.

For those willing to look it in the face, the fear is starting to become palpable. The only thing in my professional experience that comes anywhere close is the impact of the 1964 rubella epidemic, which created a phenomenal spike in the charts measuring the numbers of special children who were left deaf and blind or had other multihandicaps as a result of the disease. But that epidemic was selective; it hit like a tornado that carries away one house and leaves its neighbor. This will be a tidal wave.

A number of things become obvious immediately in thinking about what we must do to get ourselves ready for the human disaster we face.

* First, no single human service agency, including the schools, has the human and fiscal resources to meet the needs of these children and their families. A full-scale coordination effort must begin now to integrate the institutions and agencies providing policy/rulemaking/legislative leadership at community, state/province, and national levels.

* Second, because we don't even know the full extent of the problem, we have to begin immediately to collect data on these children to serve as the foundation for programming and personnel training. Every educator must be involved in information gathering and sharing. Fortunately, mechanisms such as the ERIC Clearinghouse and ECER (Exceptional Child Education Resources) already exist to support this taks. They must be fully utilized.

* Third, every special education degree-granting institution has to get a trip on this problem now. Our profession's academic leadership will need all of its imagination and skill to train a new generation of teachers to deal with a whole new category of disability.

* Fourth, school district administrators, teachers, principals, parents, and others must begin to rethink the meaning of a "free, appropriate public education" in this new context. We need to ensure that assessment teams are prepared for the mounting wave of referrals and prepared to set up IEPs and programs,

* Fifth, the drug babies are going to reintensify the need for vigorous and successful "child find" activity to make sure that the spectrum of agencies with which they are likely to come in contact closes up the holes in the safety nets.

* Sixt, at a time when "excellence is king" as a result of the preoccupations of the 1980s school reform movement, there will be resistance to curriculum additions. That resistance must be met and overcome. there will also be added impetus for using these children collectively as an excuse for backing away from many special education initiatives such as mainstreaming and plug-in programs. But we cannot afford to lose ground now.

Above all, we must double and redouble our efforts on the two strategies that we know can work to keep this problem from growing to utterly unmanageable proportions: prevention and education. The best way to help a drug baby is to keep its mother from taking drugs. The startling evidence now emerging from the study of public awareness and education campaigns about addictive drugs--from caffeine and nicotine, on the one hand, to alcohol and illegal and highly destructive substances on the other--is that scare tactics and brutally honest TV commercials ("This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?") make an impact. So do support groups, counseling, and treatment programs.

We are in a war. We must make common cause with every ally we can find. But to do battle, all of us must be ready. Preparation is no guarantee of winning; but the lack of it will assure defeat.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Council for Exceptional Children
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Greer, Jeptha V.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Article Type:column
Date:Feb 1, 1990
Words:1144
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