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Finding out--at 19--that you were a crack baby


Jeff and Debbie Anzelone share laughs during dinner at their home in Beltsville. Jeff, now 19, spent the first 5 1/2 months of his life in the "boarder baby" nursery at D.C. General at the height of the city's crack epidemic. He was later adopted by Debbie and Mike Anzelone. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post

There I was, sitting in a living room in Beltsville, petting a cat named Fiesta, when it hit me. If I had never called Debbie Anzelone, never arranged to meet with her family to discuss a story I was writing, her adopted son Jeff might have gone his whole life without realizing he was a so-called “crack baby.”

“I knew previously she had used drugs,” the 19-year-old said of his biological mother, who was in jail while she was pregnant with him. “But I didn’t know that while she was pregnant, she used drugs. Not until the other day.”

“I just told him that last night,” Debbie said. “I didn’t realize he didn’t know that.”

As I sat there, a cushion-length from Jeff on the couch, I realized guiltily that they'd had that conversation because of me. Gulp. Sorry.

I had found the Anzelones by looking at articles that ran in The Post 20 years earlier--at the peak of the crack epidemic. I was looking into what happened to babies who were born exposed to crack in the late 1980s and early 1990s – children who were written off as damaged and doomed. I came across the headline, “The Real Tragedy of Crack Babies.” In it, Deborah Anzelone is quoted as the director of the infant development program at D.C. General Hospital. Then there was this line: “Anzelone took home a crack baby – whom she is in the process of adopting – and found the child improving in all areas in just two months.”

That baby was Jeff.

At 19, Jeff is a driven teenager with good manners and a quick smile. His father Mike is proud of him for his work ethic, remembering the 14-year-old who woke up on his own each morning before 6 to get to his job at a golf course. His mother is quick to point to his kind nature, recalling how he traded a toy in daycare to get her a box of candy for Valentine's Day. He’s in college, working toward a degree in accounting. No one would guess he’d spent the first five and a half months of his life in a hospital, medically able to be released but with nowhere to go.

That’s one reason he and his parents agreed to talk with me – to show a different face of the crack epidemic.

Of course, I feel bad that the late-in-life revelation happened because of a phone call I made, because of questions I asked. My first newspaper job involved covering crime in New York and my biggest fear was that I would knock on a door and end up notifying a victim’s family about a death before the police arrived. It has happened to several of my colleagues. For me, it happened only once…and only sort of. I was at the scene of a freak accident – a man had tripped outside his home, broken his coffee cup and cut his throat on a shard of glass.

When I arrived, I found his blood on the street and his teenage son standing outside, looking dazed. He asked me what happened. I asked where his mother was. He said she left him a note because he was sleeping, saying his father had died. He wanted to know the details. How could I tell him? Still, my presence at the scene -- he was old enough to know what it means when a reporter shows up -- confirmed enough.

It was one of the more disturbing days of my career. I sat with him for a while and then offered to drive him to a relative’s house or the hospital to find his mom. I didn’t want him to be alone. He agreed to go to a friend’s house nearby.

I don’t know if there is anything worse than being the bearer of painful news. There will always be a measure of guilt -- no matter how unintended. When I called Debbie Anzelone, I didn’t mean to rattle a teenager’s world. But I am glad she told Jeff and I’m glad that he had enough self-confidence to talk to me about his life. (Trust me, there were many people who weren’t as brave, who as soon as they heard that the article I was researching was about “crack” wanted nothing to do with it). But he saw the importance of the story, of showing that he and others were not doomed.

Debbie said she had first told Jeff about his history when he was in middle school, hoping it would keep him away from drugs. She didn’t realize at the time that he hadn’t fully processed the story. “I didn’t realize he understood what a 13-year-old understands,” she said.

This time, when she told him, he took it all in. On the night we met, he said it wouldn’t change how he perceived himself – capable of doing anything his peers can – but he admitted he was still processing it.

“Honestly, I had the perception of crack babies that they were born messed up, that they went through their life having problems. And I have had ADHD all my life, which I guess is due to the fact that she did use drugs.”

“Could be,” Debbie said.

“Could be,” Jeff said. “But yeah, I had no idea.”

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By Theresa Vargas  | April 19, 2010; 10:01 AM ET
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