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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 2, No. 1
Winter 1997

Crack Cocaine and Neglect

Experienced and new social workers alike understand the negative effects crack cocaine has on the families of those who use it. Many have seen the desire for this drug grow so powerful that parents think of nothing else, failing to attend to even the basic needs of their children.

And yet what do we really know about the relationship between neglect and parental addiction to crack? More importantly, what interventions are effective for helping crack-addicted parents and their families?


Crack is a form of cocaine that provides an intense, short-lived euphoria, or high. This initial high is quickly followed by a "crash" that involves anxiety, depression, irritability, extreme fatigue, paranoia, and a craving for another high (Pearce, 1997).

Although studies show that cocaine and its derivatives are not physically addictive, prolonged exposure to the drug does create a psychological dependence, especially for intravenous users (Nicholi, 1983). Cravings become so strong they seriously disrupt normal daily living behavior for extended periods of time. In time, the desire for crack can supersede an addict's concern about the care and safety of his or her children (Farrar & Kearns, 1989).

Links to Neglect

Since the emergence of crack as a recreational drug, researchers have been examining its negative effects on families. For instance, Black and Meyer (1980) studied 200 families headed by a heroin- or crack-addicted parent. They found evidence of serious neglect in more than 30 percent of the families. In a national survey to determine the change in the number of children placed in foster care, Besharov (1990) noted that, as crack has become more widely available since the mid-1980s, there has been a corresponding increase in child foster care placements. While he showed no direct statistical relationship, Besharov concluded these increases were primarily due to crack-addicted parents' failure to care for their children.

Home Environments

In a recent study, Hawley, Halle, Drasin, and Thomas (1995) looked at the home environments of children of crack-addicted mothers to see how they differed from the homes of children of nonaddicted parents.

Hawley and colleagues compared 25 mothers who were in chemical dependency treatment for crack addiction with 25 mothers who reported no addiction and were not in drug treatment. The focus of the analysis was on the effects of drug addiction on preschool-age children. All mothers were of lower socioeconomic status and between the ages of 20 and 43.

Ultimately, Hawley and colleagues found significant differences between the two groups. Women who used crack were more likely to suffer from depression, and their families were more likely to change places of residence. In addition, children in these homes were less likely to have contact with their fathers and more likely to have been involved in foster care.

In individual interviews, addicted mothers reported more emotional and physical neglect of their children than nonaddicted mothers. Types of physical neglect ranged from mild forms, such as poor meal planning, to serious neglect, including complete disinterest in the basic needs of their children.

A recurring theme expressed by mothers addicted to crack was the love and concern they felt for their children. At the same time, however, they acknowledged their inability to provide adequate parenting because of their addiction. Though they were emphatic about the fact that they were not physically abusive, they had a sense of the devastating effects their neglect had on their children. One mother said, "I think I was kind of using more regular at a very crucial time in her life, which was when she was learnin' things. She wasn't getting the attention that she should have been gettin' at that age. And I think that's why she has to kind of withdraw from a lot of stuff now" (Hawley et al., 1995, p. 372).


What kinds of interventions are effective with parents who abuse crack and neglect their children? Unfortunately, the research literature has little to say on this subject--perhaps crack has not been around long enough to develop and test successful interventions.

However, there are some general guidelines you can apply when working with families in which one or more members is involved with crack. The suggestions in the next article, "Intervening with Addicted Parents", are excerpted from "Chemical Dependency in Parents and Caretakes."


Besharov, D. (1990). Crack children in foster care: Re-examining the delicate balance between children's rights and parent's rights. Children Today, 19, 21-25.

Black, R., & Meyer, J. (1980). Parents with special problems: Alcoholism and heroin addiction. Child Abuse and Neglect, 4, 45.

Caudel, D., & Allen, M. (1995). Chemical dependency in parents and caretakers. In B. Williams (Ed.) Family-Centered Services: A Handbook for Practitioners (pp. 247-261). Iowa City: National Resource Center for Family Centered Practice.

Farrar, H. & Kearns, G. (1989). Cocaine: Clinical pharmacology and toxicology. Journal of Pediatrics, 115, 665-675.

Hawley, T., Halle, T., Drasin, R., & Thomas, N. (1995). Children of addicted mothers: Effects of the "Crack Epidemic" on the caregiving environment and the development of preschoolers. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 65(3), 364-379.

Nicholi, A. (1983). The non-therapeutic use of psychoactive drugs: A modern epidemic. New England Journal of Medicine, 308, 925-933.

Pearce, D. (1997). Crack cocaine. The Hedonistic Imperative [On-line]. Available: (Web address no longer functional).

1997 Jordan Institute for Families