When I get Barbara Harris on the phone, there's a baby crying in the background.
"This is our last baby," she says, referring to the foster child in her care. "My husband and I are getting too old for this."
Since 1990, Harris has adopted four foster children, and has cared for over 50 children in the system—two more of which are in her home now. Over a period of only two years, Harris went from caring for one child, to taking on three more born from the same drug-addicted mother. It seemed to Harris that while there was a limit to how many children she could take in (she also has six birth-sons), there seemed to be no limit to how many babies this particular woman could produce. Harris' frustration over this woman's perceived carelessness motivated her to create the nonprofit organization CRACK.
CRACK stands for Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (now called Project Prevention) and their mission is to keep alcoholic and drug-addicted women from getting pregnant. Through fliers, canvassing, and billboards, Project Prevention offers drug-afflicted women $200 cash to agree to use long-term birth control or to undergo a tubal ligation. The women call the organization's 800 number, receive paperwork, show proof of addiction—usually in the form of an arrest record or court papers saying their children have been taken away—then visit a doctor for birth control, return the paperwork, and receive the $200. According to Harris, it's a practical, utilitarian solution to a far-reaching problem, and one that could actually work.
"LITTERS OF CHILDREN"
Recently Harris packed up her RV and took a trip from her home in Harrisburg, North Carolina to inner-city Philadelphia in order to spread the word about Project Prevention. She recounts a success story from the trip.
"We handed out some information to a lady on the street and learned later that she actually had 18 children. So when we got back to our office, the woman had called, and her daughter had called—because her daughter had kids, too—and this girl looked like she was all of 14 or 15 years old."
This is the scenario Harris is working to prevent. According to this activist, a sizable number of women who are addicted to drugs are not using birth control, and as a result are having "litters of children." Harris offers them money as incentive to avoid such scenarios.
"Jason was born addicted to drugs and weighed less than two pounds," says Project Prevention's website. "He lived three years. He was totally vent dependent, meaning he could not breathe on his own without a tube in his throat. Because of his condition, the county had to pay nurses to attend to him 24 hours a day. The cost for those nurses was over four million taxpayer dollars.
"Between the time Jason was born and died, his drug-addicted parents gave birth to another baby. But that baby, who was also vent dependent, didn't live long. Since he showed no brainwaves, the doctors had to make the painful decision to remove his life-support systems."
Despite the fact that the mother's drug habit damaged these two children so severely that they died, Harris claims that women like this one receive no punishment and can still have more children. This is the cycle she wants to stop.
"I don't understand the women's rights organizations that fight for the right for women to have as many babies as they want," Harris says. "Lynn Paltrow (Executive Director for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women) follows me all around the country [protesting Project Prevention]. I've actually told her on more than one occasion, 'If you think it's their right, then you follow them around and each kid they have, you go ahead and take it home and raise it.' Of course, she looks at me like, 'I wouldn't do that.' I mean, she wouldn't allow these women to babysit her children, I can guarantee that, but she wants them to have kids of their own."
Lynn Paltrow counters Barbara Harris' theories and Project Prevention in her laboriously researched 107-page article titled, "Why Caring Communities Should Oppose CRACK/Project Prevention: How CRACK Promotes Dangerous Propaganda and Undermines the Health and Well Being of Children and Families."
She says of Project Prevention, "instead of providing support for much-needed reproductive health services, outreach, or education, it uses its funds to reward or motivate women to be sterilized or use certain forms of birth control at public expense."
Paltrow also believes that Harris dehumanizes women by using animal metaphors, saying women are having "litters" of children. Likewise, she accuses Project Prevention of using extraordinary examples to make their case; for example the story of the woman who had 18 children. She explains, "A study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that of 120 low-income drug-using pregnant women interviewed, most 'had one or two older children and were expecting or had recently given birth to a newborn.' Although the data [Project Prevention] collects about its clients lacks scientific validity... it appears that of the women [Project Prevention] pays, each have an average of 3.5 children."
Another of Paltrow's concerns is the use of terms such as "crack baby" and "meth baby," and cites a recent controversy over the term. In a July letter sent to major media outlets, 90 doctors, scientists, psychological researchers, and treatment specialists released a public letter calling on the media to stop the use of such terms as "ice babies" and "meth babies." This prestigious group agrees that these terms lack scientific validity and should not be used.
Members of this consensus group also note that, "the suggestion that treatment will not work for people dependent upon methamphetamines, particularly mothers, also lacks any scientific basis."
"There really is no reason for a drug addict to have a baby," Harris asserts. "Even people who don't like what we're doing can't give a reason why a drug addict should have a baby, other than 'it's their right.' That's not reason enough. It's about the children. It's a bigger picture than we don't want these women to get pregnant. It's what happens to the kids after the fact. I mean I have these two kids living in my house right now. Two sisters who are eight and 10 and their mom's on crack, and they've been in the system over a year. Every week they see their mom and she tells them she's going to buy them a trampoline and she's going to do this and that. It pisses me off so much because the reality is, the mom's probably not even getting them back. And that's happening across the country, and these kids don't deserve that. It just screws them up."
Even substance-exposed children, who on the outset appear normal, can have long-term problems.
"Of the four children I've adopted," she says, "at least three have emotional problems. One of my daughters is on medicine for depression and another one of my sons is very angry. Even kids like mine who are adopted at birth and have a really good life still have things that pop up, and I didn't see that in any of my birth children—so you can't say it's not from drugs and alcohol. It ranges from kids who will never be okay, to kids who are okay, to everything in the middle. Some people will say, 'Well, your [foster] children are doing so well.' Yes, my children are doing well—but is that a reason for women to keep using drugs and having babies? It's gambling with the lives of innocent children."
OREGON AND THE CHILDREN OF METH
Every day we hear more stories on the news and in the papers about Oregon's increasing population of meth users, which means more and more babies are being born to meth-addicted mothers. Barbara Harris goes as far to say, "Portland is one of our most booming cities. We've had the most calls from your area, for whatever reason."
According to a policy brief by the group "Children First for Oregon," since 2001, the number of children entering foster care in the state has been on the rise—with over 5,500 kids becoming part of the child welfare system in 2004. According to a study cited by the Children First brief, 70-90 percent of child welfare cases are related to the parents' substance-abuse problems.
Beyond the costs of foster care for thousands of children of drug-addicted parents, kids in the foster care system will most likely have difficulty as adults. According to the Children First brief, "a study examining the outcomes of hundreds of foster care alumni shows that the majority of adults in the study face major challenges in the areas of mental health, education, and employment. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among alumni are up to twice as high as war veterans. One-third of alumni have poverty-level incomes and more than one in five experienced homelessness after leaving foster care."
So beyond preventing unfit parents from having more children, Harris' program is looking to decrease the burden on the foster care system, on taxpayers who pay for it, and ultimately seeks to decrease the population of mentally unstable and poverty-stricken adults.
THE PRICE OF PREVENTION
More than anything, Barbara Harris sees herself as a pragmatist. She sees a simple solution to a nationwide epidemic, and over the years, has addressed the problem with increased compassion. When I asked her if her views have softened at all during her years with Project Prevention, she responded, "My mind has changed as far as the women go. When I first started the program I was just so angry with these women. I thought they were scum. But during these years I've had the opportunity to meet many of these women, and eventually realized that my anger is more toward society. If the government had common sense, they would spend more money on drug treatment—then they'd be spending less on caring for these babies. People tell me I should be spending my money on treatment programs and I tell them for every Jason I can prevent from being conceived, there's four million dollars that can be used for drug treatment.
"If the government would sit down and think of all the things they could prevent from happening before they happen, think of how much money they could save. New Orleans is an example. If they would have prevented that from happening... But no, they don't do that because they're cheap and don't want to spend the money. But now what are they going to end up spending? It doesn't make any sense because they didn't save a dime.
"I should be the president, that's all I can say. I'm a high school dropout and I think I could do a better job."