When crack cocaine became a nationwide epidemic in the 1980s and 90s, it spurred fear of the impact of maternal drug use on babies during pregnancy, culminating in the so-called “crack baby epidemic.” News outlets claimed that crack cocaine use during pregnancy was detrimental to the child’s health. As a result, many pregnant women in the 1990s were prosecuted and imprisoned for cocaine or other drug use. Throughout this time, disproportionate drug testing occurred among Black pregnant women, sending a far greater number of Black mothers to prison. Scientists eventually came to the consensus that the long-term effects of maternal cocaine use on babies are minimal.
The ramifications of the crack baby epidemic also impacted children and babies that became separated from their mothers; between 1985 and 2000, tens of thousands of mothers lost their children to foster care due to drug-use during pregnancy. As a result, the number of children in out-of-home placement, such as foster care or the juvenile punishment system, increased by 25% between 1985 and 1988. The dramatic separation of children from their mothers in the 1980s and 1990s ultimately led scholars to argue that the crack baby epidemic played one of the greatest roles in producing the contemporary foster care system that disproportionately impacts mothers and children of color.