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July 5, 2012
How crack still haunts N.Y.C.

Hundreds of young people scarred by the epidemic as babies are coming of age

by Harriet McDonald

The crack epidemic may have peaked nearly two decades ago, but the social disorder it produced is still painfully evident on the streets of New York and other American cities. Thousands of people who were abandoned by their crack-addicted mothers as toddlers and preschoolers are now in their 20s, having spent their childhoods being shuttled among a half-dozen or more foster homes, then into group homes as teenagers and finally pushed out into the world as they aged out of the foster care system.

We see many of these young men and women at The Doe Fund, the social service agency where I work.

One of them, Terry, was quite literally discarded by his mother. Both of his parents were addicted to crack. One day when he was 4½, his mother threw him into a large trash bin. He remembers raising his hand in the air, trying to shove it up above the garbage so a passerby might see it and save him. An uncle came by, saw his little hand and pulled him out.

He took Terry home — and then beat Terry’s mother mercilessly.

That began Terry’s odyssey through New York’s foster care system. He was sent to six or seven homes, was beaten often — and eventually dropped out of school. He is now 22 and formerly homeless. I met him recently at The Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able residential training center in Harlem. He was sitting by himself in the cafeteria when I sat down beside him and he told me his devastating tale.

In a time of seemingly endless hard-luck stories in American cities, the fate of the abandoned children of the crack era is particularly distressing. The city and state make sure that they are at least housed and fed as children — but when they reach 18, the safety net is withdrawn. Many foster children leave the system before then.

To say that they are unprepared for life as adults would be a callous understatement. Most have dropped out of school, read and write at abysmally poor levels and have not learned the discipline of work: how to get along with supervisors and co-workers, how to show up on time. They especially lack the skills needed for jobs in a sophisticated, postindustrial economy. Many are also emotionally raw and immature, never having known the love, guidance and support of a parent or other sympathetic adult to prepare them for life on their own.

The results are sadly predictable. While there is no reliable data on how many children entered foster care because they were abandoned by crack-addicted parents, what is known is that, on average, more than 900 foster children have reached the maximum age and left New York City’s system each year over the past decade. Of these, significant portions are believed to have been victims of the crack epidemic.

Overall, about two-thirds of the young adults leaving the system are estimated to lack a full-time job, according to a study published last year by the Center for an Urban Future. They are significantly overrepresented among virtually every measure of adult dysfunction: in jails and prisons, on welfare, in the homeless system.

And yet, despite this litany of despair, these are still very young people. They can be saved, and they are desperate to be. Like Terry, many have told me, all in nearly the same words, that they are still young and still have hope. Within the last year, we at The Doe Fund have seen a significant increase in the number of young men between the ages of 18 and 24 who enter our three residential centers in New York City. They are a good deal younger than the population that has typically come to us from the city’s homeless system over the past two decades, who tend to be in their late 30s, on average.

We can make good on the aspirations of these offspring of the crack epidemic, but it will take a substantially greater commitment — and that means money. Some first-rate programs exist, combining additional education and job training to make them ready for the workplace. But much, much more is needed.

No one ever nurtured these abandoned children, no one loved or guided them. They did nothing wrong. They were simply born at the wrong time, in the wrong place.

Unless we intervene aggressively, most of these young adults are destined to be wards of the city and state forever; they will be in jails and homeless shelters, and they will be on welfare. Giving them the tools they need to become employable would pay off many times over in the future. But beyond the economic considerations, simple humanity suggests that we need to show them that abandonment is not their life-long fate. In a nation as affluent as the United States, there are no excuses for the suffering of these American children.

McDonald is the Executive Vice President of The Doe Fund.

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