Project Prevention in Hartford, Connecticut

December 07, 2006

In November of this year Hartford Courant Commentator, Helen Ubiñas contacted NAPW about Barbara Harris and her latest efforts in Connecticut. NAPW was able to provide this thinking journalist with extensive background information about the program and the letter on the "crack baby" myth from the leading researchers in the field. Below is her unusually good commentary and two letters to the editor. One is by NAPW Executive Director Lynn Paltrow and the other letter is by NAPW ally Mary Barr.


Prevention Through Bribery

Helen Ubiñas

November 16 2006

There are some basic truths behind Project Prevention, no doubt about that. The plight of children born to addicted parents is tragic. And disadvantaged women should have unrestricted access to free birth control.

Sounds good, said Mike Davis; that's why he let Sarah Link and Jessica Vogelgesang post a flier about the program on the window of his Albany Avenue tattoo parlor. Look around, he said. Drugs have ravaged this community, destroyed families. Kids of drug-addicted parents are more casualties than they are children.

But never have I seen a couple of good ideas add up to such a hellacious one.

The program, originally called C.R.A.C.K. - Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity - was started by Barbara Harris in California after she adopted four siblings whose mother was addicted to crack.

The idea is to offer people addicted to alcohol and drugs a $300 cash incentive not to have children. Oh, let's stop being polite: The idea is to bribe poor people to sterilize themselves - with either temporary birth control methods or more permanent tubal ligations or vasectomies.

When I talked to Harris after spending the afternoon with her new Connecticut volunteers, it was clear she'd scaled back her rhetoric. There was no talk of punishing women; she'd originally pushed for legislation to jail women who exposed their fetuses to drugs. No comparison of the women to animals, as in a 1998 magazine interview: "We don't allow dogs to breed. We spay them. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted puppies, and yet these women are literally having litters of children."

She struck a more sympathetic tone when I talked with her Tuesday.

"These women are using and spiraling downward," she said. "If they get pregnant and the state takes their baby, they feel guilty and ashamed, and they don't know how to stop the cycle."

But Harris knows; it's really simple. It's voluntary and it's for the kids, she said.

Please. There's nothing voluntary when you're waving $300 under a drug addict's nose. Why not just skip a step and hand out rocks of crack?

And is it about the kids, really? Or is it about the "haves" making decisions for the "have nots" about who should be allowed to reproduce? There's something frightening and familiar about that. It stinks of eugenics, of the coerced sterilization of poor Southern blacks in the last century.

Although Link and Vogelgesang say they're not just working in Hartford - they're headed to Bristol and Waterbury and other less-urban towns to pitch the program - it clearly targets poor women, many of whom are women of color. Let's get real: Three hundred dollars isn't going to tempt some alcoholic soccer mom from the suburbs to get her tubes tied.

Ironically, while children of alcoholic mothers really can suffer developmental problems, what drives Harris is the myth of the "crack baby." When the crack-cocaine epidemic struck two decades ago, newspapers were full of stories about babies of crack addicts doomed to permanent mental and physical disabilities.

Science has largely discounted that notion today. Poverty, one 1999 study found, has a greater impact than cocaine on a child's developing brain.

But none of those facts seem to impact Harris or her volunteers.

She's heard all the criticisms, Harris said. And she's done listening.

Here's hoping the people she and her team bribe with that cash incentive are done listening, too.

Helen Ubiñas' column appears on Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at ubinas@courant.com.
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant


Sterilization Isn't The Answer

Helen Ubiñas' Nov. 16 column "Prevention Through Bribery" raises appropriate concerns about a program
that offers certain women $300 to get sterilized or use long-acting birth control.

The greatest threat to children is not their own mothers. Moreover, sterilization should not be the answer
to a child welfare system that too often separates newborns from their mothers rather than investing in
cost-saving family preservation and family drug-treatment programs.

Parents can and do recover from drug and alcohol problems. Just ask President George W. Bush,
who was arrested for drunken driving just a few years before he became a father and did not give up
drinking until his twin daughters were nearly 5 years old.

Recovery requires support, however, and it should not only be the privileged who have access to
compassionate services - rather than punitive child welfare interventions or $300 to get sterilized.

Lynn Paltrow
Executive Director
National Advocates for Pregnant Women
New York, N.Y.

Glad Offer Was Never Made

I thank Helen Ubiñas for her Nov. 16 column. And thank goodness I had not met Project Prevention founder Barbara Harris when I was in active addiction, because I may have taken her up on her offer and missed out on the beauty of having children.

There are hundreds of thousands of recovering addicts in the United States, many of whom are parents. We are soccer moms and Little League baseball coaches; teachers and civic leaders; white, black, rich and poor.

As for Ms. Harris' low expectations of our children, my son is a computer whiz and my daughter is attending one of the most advanced schools in the country and wants to be a pediatric surgeon.

Mary Barr
Secaucus, N.J.