Border Babies

June 21, 2018

A Gazette Editorial

The current immigration controversy involving the separation of children and parents at the Southern border has brought back some grim memories. In NYC in the late 1980s and early 90s there was another program involving separation. And although the circumstances and motivations were completely different, one aspect was disturbingly similar: children in cages.┬áThe story wasn’t exactly a secret, but it wasn’t widely known either. The context was this: the crack epidemic had grown so severe that President H.W. Bush went on TV with a bag of rocks to draw attention to it.

President Bush Address National Drug Policy, Sep 5 1989 Video C-SPAN.org - Google Chrome 6202018 113353 PM

President Bush holding a bag of crack cocaine on TV.

Here in NYC it wasn’t unusual, in some neighborhoods, to see dozens of empty crack vials on the ground wherever you happened to look. Crack related crimes like busting car windows to steal radios were rampant and most of the 2,000+ murders a year were also drug related. “Crack dens” and “crack hoes” were ideal vectors for the spread of AIDS, which was still a terminal diagnosis at the time. It was against that backdrop that some hospitals began testing newborns for HIV and drugs. When the result was positive for coke the mother was prevented from taking the baby home immediately.

The Developmental Science of Adolescence History Through Autobiography - Google Books - Google Chrome 6202018 103358 PM-001

In “Coming of Age” Karen Hein refers to border babies at Lincoln in the 1960s.

The newborns remained in the hospital and as time went by they grew older and were joined by others in the same situation. They were called “crack babies” by the world outside, but to those working in hospitals at the time they were “boarder babies.” It was shocking to see children confined to what were essentially cages. One nurse described how the staff would, on breaks and after their shift, hold the babies and cuddle them. The whole thing was a heartbreaking and mostly forgotten bad dream from long ago until this week when it unexpectedly resurfaced.

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