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Crystal Piquette, here with Alexis, says she cut back when pregnant but living on the street meant ‘drinking was around me at all times. I wouldn’t fall asleep and wake up – I’d pass out and come to.’ (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Crystal Piquette, here with Alexis, says she cut back when pregnant but living on the street meant ‘drinking was around me at all times. I wouldn’t fall asleep and wake up – I’d pass out and come to.’ (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Unplanned parenthood: how drinking while pregnant changes lives forever Add to ...

Crystal Piquette is 31 and ripped, her biceps and flat tummy a testament to the rigours of her factory job. Her life seems ordinary – she has a boyfriend and five cats, does handicrafts and dreams of buying a home – but it’s a quantum leap for someone who ran away from home at 17 to live on the street. Back then, whatever she earned as a panhandler, or as one of Toronto’s infamous “squeegee kids” washing windshields, went toward drugs, “wino drinks” and a man far older than she was.

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“I was definitely the outcast,” Ms. Piquette recalls. “I didn’t get along with anybody. I still don’t. I don’t have any true friends.”

And yet her troubled background fascinates the woman with her, who has wanted to hear about it for years. “She’s kind of my hero,” Kathy Moreland Layte admits, dabbing her eyes.

And while Ms. Piquette has no friends, she thinks highly of Ms. Layte: “I wish she was my mother.”

The two were brought together by parenthood. They are both mothers of two young children – the same young children. Ms. Layte, 52, has adopted the son and daughter born to Ms. Piquette during her previous life. Alexis was conceived under the viaduct near the Air Canada Centre, and her mother says that during the pregnancy, she and the father “didn’t have a roof over our heads. We had to beg for food.”

She also had no medical care until just before the baby arrived, small and as fragile as a “porcelain doll.” Twelve years later, Alexis has difficulty with her hearing and speech and, unlike most kids her age, still plays with stuffed animals. Utterly without the guile seen so often in prepubescent girls, she seems warm and calm – a description rarely applied to her little brother.

Austin Layte picks up a piece of rope from the front yard of his house and bursts into piercing shrieks. It has pinched his hand.

“He’ll be fine,” says Ms. Layte, running in the house to grab an ice pack. “He just feels things a lot more than other children.”

Just 1 when adopted, Austin soon went from being a spirited toddler to having such poor control of his impulses that, by 18 months, Ms. Layte says, fear of consequences was no deterrence for his “unwanted behaviours.”

At daycare, he pushed kids down the stairs and wouldn’t stop throwing food; in Grade 1, he was caught climbing the curtains and was kicked out of nature camp for hitting a child with a stick. Bike treks with his mother were abandoned because he kept tearing out his sister’s hair. One day, he was nabbed on top of the refrigerator, reaching for scissors hidden in a cupboard so he could give the dog a haircut.

“He would head-butt me without batting an eye,” Ms. Layte recalls. “He hit me so hard in the face that I had a nosebleed.”

Yet he was so prone to anxiety that he needed someone with him wherever he went. His parents enjoyed little respite; babysitters rarely came twice.

For years, the source of his behaviour remained a mystery. How could he be so different from his sister? Why did punishment not work?

Doctors have finally pinpointed the cause: Austin, now 10, has partial fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). He is one of about 3,500 children born in Canada every year whose exposure to alcohol while in the uterus has caused irreversible brain damage.

The possibility of FASD had occurred to Ms. Layte, a former nurse practitioner who teaches at a nursing college. But a pediatrician discounted the notion, saying that, even if it were true, little could be done. Also, because children develop so differently, experts rarely diagnose FASD under the age of 8, unless they find the condition’s telltale facial features, such as Austin’s narrow eyes and flattened philtrum (the groove above the upper lip).

But now Ms. Layte has learned that sweet Alexis, as different from her brother as she may seem, suffers from the same affliction, and also “will need support all through her life.”

Almost four decades after researchers pinpointed the devastating effects of alcohol on the unborn child, the subject is only now garnering serious attention. Two scholarly publications (Journal on Developmental Disabilities and The First People Child & Family Review) have special issues in the works for 2013, and there is a private member’s bill before Parliament that would create a national strategy on FASD. Experts consider this vital because FASD children have long been misunderstood and badly treated, often landing in foster care or on the street.

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