“Sixty per cent of adolescents and adults with FASD have trouble with the law,” says John Rafferty, the NDP MP for Thunder Bay-Rainy River, who sponsored the bill. “If you think of prevention, that is an enormous cost.”
Of special concern to aboriginal communities, FASD challenges governments because it involves “virtually every social-service sector,” says pediatrician Charlotte Moore Hepburn, lead of child health-policy initiatives at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “We have poor services for the children and little sympathy for the women.”
Western provinces have taken the lead, adopting strategies that make caring for FASD children a priority – Alberta, for example, has introduced dedicated clinics and a telephone help line. Elsewhere, however, it can be difficult even to have a suspected case assessed; according to research pioneer Sterling Clarren, the medical system currently can identify “something less than 2,000” cases a year – far fewer than the number being born.
“So we’re getting farther and farther behind,” says Dr. Clarren, scientific director of the Vancouver-based Canada FASD Research Network. “Most systems have not had to come to terms with the fact that they have to deal with kids with fetal alcohol.”
Adoption is one such system. FASD is generally thought to affect, to some degree, about 1 per cent of all newborns, but Toronto journalist Bonnie Buxton says that covers a “significant percentage of adopted children.”
She contends that “most youngsters available for adoption have been removed from dysfunctional, alcoholic families.”
After their adopted daughter was diagnosed, Ms. Buxton and her husband, Brian Philcox, founded FASworld Toronto, a charity that provides a monthly family-support group. Then, in 2002, she wrote an article urging prime minister Jean Chrétien to have his adopted aboriginal son, Michel, tested after the young man was charged with sexual assault (he was later acquitted).
She estimated that 300,000 Canadians struggle with FASD. “Each one will cost the public up to $2-million in his or her lifetime for special education, social services, extra medical care and possible involvement with crime.”
This surprised many of her readers, as it had her. “At the time we adopted, social workers knew very little about FASD,” she says. By 17, her daughter had gone through several social workers and psychologists, and landed on the street, addicted to crack.
Alerted by a TV report to what might be causing the problem, Ms. Buxton fought to find help and went on to write Damaged Angels, an acclaimed account of her struggle to rescue a young women now thriving in a solid relationship and with two children. Still, almost a decade later, Ms. Buxton says, people eager to adopt rarely consider the damage alcohol may have done to children in need of a home. “They can be so darn cute and cuddly, they can be absolutely adorable.”
Ms. Layte also was ill prepared for how her life turned out after March, 2003, when she and her husband received an irresistible offer. A young mother about to lose her children to foster care had chosen adoption instead, so she could pick the parents and arrange to stay in contact. In the Laytes, she saw people who were “stable, with good jobs” and could give Alexis and Austin “what I didn’t have, which is everything they have now.”
“I wanted to see them being raised,” Ms. Piquette says – but not the way she had been brought up. She was just 18 months old when her mother dropped her off with neighbours in farming country near Shelburne, Ont., saying she had to go to the bank. Instead, she vanished, and Ms. Piquette still knows little about her, except she was never happy, “drank like a fish” and had also been abandoned by her mother.
Which is not unusual, Edmonton pediatrician and FASD consultant Gail Andrew says, echoing Bonnie Buxton. “A high percentage of [these] birth mothers were children in care themselves,” she explains, with “no significant person in their life there when they needed one.”
In June, 2003, the youngsters met their new parents for the first time: “Austin was given to my husband and Alexis was given to me,” Ms Layte remembers. “They both put their arms out. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, they’re beautiful.’ It was hard to believe they were ours.”
Ms. Layte says she knew the children had been exposed to marijuana, cigarettes and possibly cocaine in the womb, so “there was a risk they would have learning disabilities and maybe learning delays.” On the other hand, both were full-term babies, and “that was a good thing.” but it was years before she learned that alcohol was a factor as well, and only then when Ms. Piquette made a passing comment about how well Austin was doing, considering she drank while pregnant. Suddenly Ms. Layte realized the boy’s problems could be more serious than she had thought.