When Bonnie and I adopted a three year-old blond tomboy, we never realized what an amazing journey she we lead us on. It was she who led us into the strange world of FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) and we know we’re going to be here for the duration. Working with other parents whose children struggle with FASD has given us insights into the anguish, the agony , the pride and the generosity of a cross-section of the most amazing parents you could ever encounter.
Our FASworld Toronto support group meets monthly at The Hospital for Sick Children and there is a never-ending confidential sharing of triumphs, trials and strategies. Our major concern is the inability of the establishment (schools, faith groups, social services and governments) to understand the devastating struggle faced by families trying to keep their children with FASD in school and out of jail. Many policymakers, teachers and police assume that our children have normal brains. They don’t, and here’s why. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, the teratogenic effect disrupts the neuropathways of the developing brain of the fetus.
The affected child will grow up with a mosaic of disabilities: poor memory, impulsivity, inability to predict consequences, inability to learn from experience and, often a lack of an ethical centre.
This individual will usually drop out of school early, start using substances to try to feel normal and have many interactions with the justice system. He or she will have difficulty with abstract subjects, managing money and fulfilling commitments. Some custodial workers and supervisors of prisons have told us that at least 80% of the inmates in their care struggle with some form of FASD. At the rate of $110,000 per inmate per year, that’s a hefty penalty for society to pay for maternal drinking in pregnancy. Add the expense of special education, welfare and other social services, and we see a lifetime cost of at least $2 million per affected individual.
Health Canada estimates that 1% of all newborns are affected but that may be too conservative. That figure suggests we have over 300,000 Canadians struggling with FASD today. These costs are equivalent to the entire national debt. Our federal government has determined that we should be “tough on crime” by expanding the prison system and have mandatory sentences for certain crimes. That will certainly keep our prisons overflowing with our alcohol affected youth and adults who will come through that experience as dedicated criminals.
We don’t need more prisons or mandatory sentences. We do need our medical schools to teach medical students about FASD. We need diagnostic teams across the country to identify those individuals who need diversion, not prison. A person with FASD is not responsible for the brain trauma suffered before birth. But those individuals deserve our support in ways that will integrate them into the mainstream.
Prevention in the first place is critical and the education of professionals and the general public is essential. After that, we must find better ways to help individuals with FASD to become productive members of society. Because they have difficulty processing information, we have to recognize that their brains are like file cabinets without the benefit of file folders.
Let’s look at alternative residential facilities — not jails — where they can learn to work at hands-on activities that don’t require abstract studies. Many could succeed in the hospitality industry, music, art, or working with animals. They can thrive if we give them the time and opportunity to develop at their own pace. They are ten second people in a one second world. We know of dormant physical structures in Ontario that could be brought back to life to educate and train them.
This would cost money. But it wouldn’t be wasted money that breeds criminality in those punitive locations we call prisons. Will we still need jails for villains? Of course we will. But we will reduce crime and build a better society.