Cracking down

Barbara Harris pays addicted mothers $200 not to have children -- ever again.


Jeff Stryker
June 30, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

"They're having litters. They are literally having litters."

Barbara Harris is not talking about puppies or kittens, but about addicted women who have given birth to five, 10 or 15
drug-exposed children, despite being unwilling or unable to care for them.
And Harris is not just mad as hell -- she is trying, almost single-handedly,
to do something about it. Last year, she founded CRACK (Children
Requiring a Caring Kommunity), a nonprofit organization in Anaheim, Calif., that
offers $200 to any
drug-addicted or alcoholic mother who agrees to be sterilized or have Norplant
implanted, or to any male drug addict or alcoholic who has a vasectomy.

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"I'm not saying these women are animals," she hastens to add.
Nevertheless, her words can't help but evoke images of animal shelters that
offer pet owners a few dollars to encourage them to spay or neuter
their animals. The idea also seems uncomfortably close to
population control efforts such as Peru's program to sterilize poor women by offering them small gifts as bait. Harris' proposal is certainly in a
similar vein: Why not see
if money will convince parents addicted to crack, heroin,
alcohol or speed not to bring any more children into the world?

"I've never taken on anything else like this," says Harris, an engaging woman in her mid-40s, as we sit in her office at CRACK's utilitarian headquarters, a couple of rooms in a
medical office
building nestled in a vast expanse of strip malls. "When I was in high
school, I wouldn't even get up
in class to give a report, I would rather get an 'F' -- that's how shy I
was. People who know me can't believe I am doing this."

Harris got involved when she and her
husband, Smitty, parents of a blended family of six boys, decided they
wanted a girl and opted for the one sure-fire method: foster care. That is how Destiny, the 8-month-old daughter of a crack-addicted
mother, came into their lives. Destiny soon had a new baby brother. Would
the Harrises be
interested in taking him in too? And so it went until Barbara and
Smitty Harris had adopted Destiny, Isiah, Taylor and Brandon -- babies
No. 5, 6, 7 and 8 from the same mother.

The idea that Destiny's mom "was allowed to just visit her local
hospital yearly and drop off her damaged babies and nobody would even
give her a slap on the hand" rankled Harris, who says that several of the
children were born addicted and had to suffer through withdrawal as
infants. Harris never met Destiny's birth mother, but as she took more and
more of the woman's children into her home, the plight of babies such as
Destiny became her cause.

In a flannel shirt and jeans, this day Harris looks more soccer mom
than working mother, although her life gives new meaning to the phrase
"second shift." On a typical business
day, she fields press calls, raises money, juggles a board of
directors and plays social worker, all between the hours of 8 and
10:30 in the morning, then bolts home to take care of
the children.

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Harris began her crusade by asking nurses, police and social workers
if she could do
something, anything, to break this cycle of despair -- even if it meant
making a citizen's arrest. When she was told there was nothing she
could do, she became a "faxing fool." Shy no more, she convinced a California state Assembly member, Phil Hawkins, to
introduce a
bill to make it a crime to give birth to a drug baby.

When the bill died
in committee, she took her plea to the media, making her case
in the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times. She appeared on
"Oprah" and became a
darling of talk radio hosts and newspaper pundits across the nation --
among them San Diego radio personality Rick Roberts, now a CRACK board
member, who had gained national attention for reading the names of Megan's
Law sex offenders on the air, and Dr. Laura
Schlessinger,
who has donated $5,000 to the CRACK coffers and frequently
touts the program on her radio therapy show.

In the center of an emotionally charged issue, Harris is an effective
advocate, all the more so because she has
"walked the walk" with her adopted family. The reaction of Orlando Sentinel
columnist Kathleen Parker is typical. "Everybody complains ... Then one day,
somebody actually does
something," Parker wrote in her syndicated column last December. "Not a
bureaucrat, not a politician, not a social worker.
Just somebody who is sick and tired of watching the tragedy unfold while
everybody else comes up with reasons why we can't do anything. Barbara
Harris of Stanton, Calif., is my hero." Conservative radio host and Denver Post columnist Ken Hamblin was equally impassioned. "[Harris'] words of wisdom
and tough love
seem to be lost on the bleeding heart feminist liberals," he wrote in December.
"I say 200 bucks is a minuscule sum to spend if it will prevent a junkie from
contributing another baby to the junk heap of urban poverty and human
misery."

- - - - - - - - - -

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Yet while Harris may have touched a nerve with the public, critics
question whether her solution is effective, much less ethical. So far,
CRACK's numbers are sufficiently modest to border on the symbolic. There
have been 13 drug-addicted clients, all women, who have chosen sterilization over the less permanent Norplant option. Prior to being
sterilized, these 13 women
had given birth to 78 children: Six were stillborn, two died after birth
and 64 are now in
foster care -- "being supported by taxpayers," Harris is quick to note.
With about 6 percent of all newborns exposed in utero to illegal drugs
(according to the National Institutes of Drug Abuse's estimate for 1992,
the last year for which statistics are available), Harris' program has thus made a
tiny dent in a big problem.

But it is a big enough dent for some to question who Harris is to play God. "To
have somebody out there doing these kinds of things that have to do
with creation of life or termination of life is way too
presumptuous," says Melanie Blum, an Orange County attorney who specializes
in reproductive rights and infertility cases. "To sterilize part of the
population because you can afford to do so, it is just not her decision ... to make."

For Blum, it doesn't make much difference that it is a private
citizen and a nonprofit organization -- not the
government -- offering the incentive. If paying people not to have children
is legal, Blum suggests, perhaps it shouldn't be: "We prevent certain
private
contracts in this country -- you can't buy and sell children, for example.
We prevent certain things because it is against public policy."

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"The $200 is just a bribe," adds Jon Dunn, the CEO and
president of Planned Parenthood of San Bernardino and Orange counties.
"Drug-addicted women are effectively being coerced because of their
desperation for money for drugs. It is using their circumstances to
exploit them." Rocio
Cordoba, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of
Southern California, agrees. "She is
targeting a very discrete, vulnerable population of women who have few
options."

To Harris, however, obsessing too much about
women's reproductive rights is what got us here in the first place -- and
that singular focus has obscured the needs of the real vulnerable population, children. "We have more
compassion for animals than we do for kids," Harris fumes. "What about the
babies that
are dying? Don't get me wrong, it is nice to live in America, but we are
messed up. Our rights are going to be our biggest
downfall." Harris makes no bones about her own singular focus, however: Her program is
about the children, not women or their rights.

This aspect of CRACK strikes
many as cynical, both in its conception and execution -- an image that
is not redeemed by the unvarnished message on the program's flyers:
"Don't Let Pregnancy Ruin Your Drug Habit." The payment is a one-time
offering, with no provision for follow-up. "We would be more supportive of a program that would actually
address the underlying problems," says Cordoba.

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Harris readily admits that some of her clients might use the $200 to buy
more drugs. But she does not subscribe to the conventional wisdom
that addiction is a disease -- a fact that raises the ire of equally outspoken critics on the left
and has cost her support from some in medicine and public health. Next to Cordoba, who describes the women Harris is targeting in a way that makes
drug addiction seem like a visitation, Harris sounds callous. "If
they are drug addicts, they are drug addicts by choice," Harris says. "People
say it is a disease, fine. But it is a disease of choice -- however they
got there and whatever their background and however screwed up their life is. The babies don't have a choice."

Harris' simple -- some would say facile -- solution has also raised charges of racism. Dr. Xylina Bean, chief neonatologist at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical center in Los Angeles, told the L.A. Times that she believes the program focuses on minority communities, feeding "latent racism" -- although about half of CRACK's clients have been white. And while Harris is white, her husband, Smitty, is African-American, as are their adopted children.

Harris' critics also warn about the slippery slope. "Today it is
targeting and criminalizing drug abuse, but what will it be tomorrow?" asks the ACLU's
Cordoba. "If you take it to its logical conclusion, you could have a
program or
policy that monitors the kind of food a woman eats while she is
pregnant, or whether she exercises enough, or whether she has a glass of
wine or a cup of coffee." Blum voices similar concerns. "Where does it
stop? Next do we start sterilizing people who don't take their
multivitamins?"

Harris dismisses the naysayers, laughing off the idea that
discouraging crack addicts from having babies will inevitably lead to jailing
pregnant coffee drinkers. A more valid concern, however, is
whether the program really addresses the problem. "Crack
moms" may be a convenient and sensational target, says Deborah Mathieu, author of "Preventing Prenatal Harm: Should the State
Intervene?" (second edition, 1996), but alcohol probably poses a much worse threat to the fetus. And alcohol and tobacco use
during pregnancy are far more widespread -- according to the National Institutes of Drug Abuse, 18 percent of newborns have been
exposed to
alcohol in utero and 20 percent to tobacco, nearly four times the number
exposed to illegal drugs. In addition, says Mathieu, recent
research suggests that the impact of in utero drug exposure may not
be as dramatic, or as long-term, as was once feared. "Crack itself
is not the
main danger," says Mathieu. "The main danger is being brought up by an addict."

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Harris' critics complain that the decision-making capacity of the
women her program targets is so impaired by
drug use that any consent to undergo sterilization is suspect. Harris' answer is CRACK client Sharon Adams.

"I am not ashamed
of how many kids I've had," Adams tells me when we talk. "I am not ashamed
to tell anyone I was on
dope. I hit bottom, rock bottom. I've been raped, I've been shot, I've been
to prison. I was close to death."

Herself the
14th of 14 children, Adams had given birth to 13
children, all of whom have ended up in foster care, in prison or dead. She is hard
pressed to say why the 14th was a charm, but when she became
pregnant again, she decided she would try to
stop "chasing the rock" and get clean. She did.

A nurse at the hospital where she was due to deliver her son encouraged Adams to be sterilized and gave her a CRACK flier. "I
didn't care. Money or not, I still wanted my tubes
tied," says Adams. She used most of the $200 to buy things for her baby. "I told him, 'Kendall, you're the last
button
on Gabriel's coat and I'm going to use this on you.'"

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Although Adams is not exactly the target CRACK client -- she had
already made her decision, and the $200 was just a little more incentive --
she has become a veritable poster child for the program, appearing with
Harris on radio and TV. And she has no regrets about her decision. "It is possible that you could regret it," she admits, "but I tell women to have
a level
head and do it for yourself, nobody else."

Ironically, if the law Harris had lobbied for two years ago had passed in California, Adams might now be behind bars instead of raising her son and doing public relations for Harris' program. Yet that solution may not be so far-fetched: In May, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 1989
South Carolina
statute that made drug use by pregnant women a crime. With that kind of momentum, Harris is making plans to go national with CRACK, predicting that the nation is ready for her $200 solution. "Nobody should have a problem with it," she says. "Not anyone who has a
heart, anyway."


Jeff Stryker

Jeff Stryker is a writer in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Jeff Stryker

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