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Crack babies' problems appear more nurture than nature

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MIAMI - Behind a converted Allapattah, Fla., crack house, around the corner from a bail bondsman and a used-tire shop, 2-year-olds Jamario and Everett are learning to ask for orange juice.

Children their age normally have a vocabulary of a few hundred words and are starting to build simple sentences, but Jamario and Everett simply hold up their empty paper cups and stare expectantly.

Like the 58 other children at the Linda Ray Intervention Center, the boys were born to mothers who used cocaine during pregnancy.

``They're not going to initiate language without being prompted,'' said Lynne Katz, the center's director.

A little more than 10 years ago, when Katz and other University of Miami researchers started the day-care center, popular culture was still focused on crack babies. The media was saturated with images of impossibly tiny newborns wired into impossibly intricate medical equipment, and health and education activists feared for a new generation of urban tragedies.

They were wrong, Katz and her colleagues now believe.

``There is no such syndrome,'' said Keith Scott, the center's executive director, also a UM professor.

Unlike fetal alcohol syndrome, which has physical effects that interfere with a child's development, the ``symptoms'' associated with cocaine-exposed babies appear to be connected to their environment. Babies of drug-using mothers tend to get less attention at home, less exposure to language and less stability as they are handed off among various relatives and caregivers.

Researchers at other universities have drawn similar conclusions, but some of the most compelling evidence is in Linda Ray's five classrooms.

The youngest babies, just a few months old, are bright-eyed and affectionate but almost completely silent.

On the other side of the play area, older children who have spent nearly three years at Linda Ray are so chatty they practically interrupt themselves.

``The room is noisy, which makes us happy,'' Katz said.

Three-year-old Jayla breathlessly talks about learning to ride a bicycle, then shifts to talk about wading in the center's tiny pools before bragging that she can imitate a horse.

``We cannot believe that's the same little girl that came in,'' said her adopted mother, Ruth Brazzel.

Jayla was born three months premature, weighing 3 pounds, to someone Brazzel calls ``a street person'' from whom she has not heard in more than a year.

Now Jayla and her 3-year-old classmates are almost indistinguishable from other children the same age, Scott said. Most of them score slightly below normal on developmental tests - about the same as typical kids in high-poverty neighborhoods, and far better than cocaine-exposed children who never made it off Linda Ray's waiting list.

I honestly don't think a child-development teacher could tell they were substance-exposed,'' Scott said.They are doing rather well for inner-city children.''

Like her 3-year-old classmates, Friday was Jayla's last day at Linda Ray. On Monday, she will start pre-kindergarten in a Head Start program at Bunche Park Elementary. Her group is the 10th ``graduating class.''

Like Jamario and Everett, Jayla was slow to talk but was transformed in part by Linda Ray's aggressive embrace of language. Signs in every classroom remind the certified teachers and numerous classroom aides to ask open-ended questions, encourage sounds and words and avoid responding to the children with uh huh,''yeah'' or ``good job.''

When teacher Dorothy Koffler sees 2-year-old Shrea grabbing for a rubber duckie that Jude had just snatched, she reminds the girl that ``we use our words.''

Stop,'' she has Shrea repeat.My duck.''

Koffler has taught Shrea, Jude, Jamario and Everett since they arrived at the center and will stay with them until they leave. They have always had the same classroom, which grows along with them, transforming from nursery to playroom. The strategy, Scott said, is to compensate for the instability many have at home.

Most are picked up every weekday morning before breakfast, arriving around 9:30. They will receive two meals and a snack between playtime, reading time, naptime and more before being returned home after 2:30 p.m.

Parents pay nothing because the center's budget is covered by local, state and federal funding as well as foundation grants and private gifts.

The estimated cost per child: $12,500 a year, enough to raise questions as to whether such a program could be replicated on a large scale. Katz and Scott are trying, though, opening their first satellite center in a classroom rented from a Kendall synagogue.

And now that they have a decade of data to tout, Katz said they are hoping to secure substantial ongoing funding from private foundations or other donors.

Scott and Katz want at least to be able to serve all the children referred by the Department of Children & Families and said they believe similar intensive-language programs for infants and toddlers could benefit a wider audience in high-poverty areas.

Brazzel has seen the impact in her own home: All three of her adopted children were born to drug-using mothers, but the oldest was never part of the Linda Ray program.

She was very quiet and withdrawn,'' Brazzel said of the girl, now 11.She's still not as enthused as Jayla and my 9-year-old, not that energetic.''

Just fewer than a quarter of the Linda Ray children live with a biological parent, Katz said, and many are hesitant to sign up with a program that inserts counselors, social workers and other professionals into their daily lives.

By the end, Katz said, they are hesitant to leave:

`One mom said to me as she was leaving,What would it take for one more year?' ''


(c) 2005, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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