The little known impacts of fetal alcohol syndrome…

Apologies in advance for making your day more miserable than it need be, but a story about young murderers motivated me to find these internet articles on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder:

“New Zealand postgraduate studies have gathered a small amount of qualitative data from affected families indicating that living with FASD causes multiple long-term health and social problems, distress, disablement and disadvantage (Symes, 2001; Salmon 2006). For example the Symes (2004) doctoral study interviewed New Zealand caregivers raising children with FASD and found:

  • 58% reported mental health problems such as serious depression, suicide attempts, panic attacks and attention deficit disorders
  • 93% had problems with repeated lying o 75% problems with theft
  • 76% with property damage
  • 26% with lighting fires

(Alcohol Healthwatch Action on Liquor, 2007)

And this:

“A longitudinal study of secondary disabilities in a population affected by FASD in the USA (Streissguth et al, 2006) showed that:

  • 90% had diagnosed mental health problems
  • 80% of adults were dependent for their daily needs
  • 80% had employment problems
  • 60% were expelled from or dropped out of school
  • 60% had been in trouble with the law
  • 50% had inappropriate sexual behaviour
  • 50% had been confined for mental health reasons, alcohol and drug treatment or as a consequence of law violations
  • 30%had alcohol and drug problems (prevented from being more significant due to family intervention and control)”

I don’t know how accurate these findings are, but from experience working with some boys with this disorder the only thing that surprises me is that this summary does not mention lack of empathy.

So, imagine if your troubled daughter/sister/niece/friend told you she was pregnant, but “alcohol doesn’t always do harm to unborn babies (which is true) so I’m going to carry on drinking (heavily) and drugging (occasionally)”. What would you think? More to the point, what would you do?

Let’s ratchet it up a bit. What if she already has a struggling, troublesome, fourteen-year old empathy-lacking son who was born with alcohol fetal syndrome. Would that make a difference to   your response? You could be struck by the thought that you are privy to the careless creation of a psychopath, and yet feel as powerless as everyone else.

What can you do? Lock the mother up in a suitable treatment centre to live with her child for six months or so, thus ensuring the child’s safety and the mother’s opportunity to learn the meaning of responsible parenting?

Definitely not. That approach is draconian. Not at all suitable in a society that values democratic rights. That is not to say we do not value the rights of the child. So watch you don’t light a fag when you’re driving your child to the swimming pool tomorrow. You could be stopped by a cop for being a bad parent.

But seriously, although my gut response is to toss the mother in a secure environment and keep her there until she learns how to care for a child, the issue is too complicated for short-term initiatives.

What is needed is a massive — and I mean war-footing massive — injection of resources in two areas; drug and alcohol rehabilitation treatment centres, and, because this whole area has reached crisis proportions, a baby care ministry.

I envisage the creation of thousands of baby and toddler-centred workers whose job it is to be hands on, at least three times a week in the child’s home for some hours, supporting and supervising parents identified by midwives and other professionals. Social workers and teachers and others know who these families are. I emphasise the word supervise, along with support. And recommend quick action to remove the child if the parents refuses to cooperate.

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.