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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 ...

Ms. Piquette readily admits that, when she was living on the street, “drinking was around me at all times. I wouldn’t fall asleep and wake up – I’d pass out and come to,” but insists: “I cut back when I was pregnant.”

Drinking while pregnant has long been controversial, and only recently has Ottawa adopted guidelines saying total abstinence is the safest bet.

Alcohol remains the only consumer product known to cause harm if misused that is not required to carry a warning label. Last spring, Molson Coors added a logo to its beer packaging – a pregnant woman with a diagonal line across her – but is that enough to get the message across?

Laura Spero recalls she, too, drank “quite a bit,” largely on weekends, when she became pregnant at 20. “Nothing was ever said about it. I wouldn’t have people around me that smoked – but I didn’t know about alcohol.”

Now 48, she still goes to bars on weekends – as an FASD awareness and prevention educator in London, Ont. She hopes to keep young women from making the same mistake but finds that, even though almost three decades have passed, little has changed: Many still consider smoking their biggest threat.

At first, Austin’s good looks and personal charm made him popular at school, a daring boy with espresso-coloured eyes and a shock of brown hair. When his behaviour became an issue, it was attributed to attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder, but Ms. Layte was skeptical – and the ADHD medication did no good. His behaviour became even harder to control.

“Kathy was disadvantaged because for many years, she didn’t know what she was dealing with,” says friend Elspeth Ross, an educator who lives in Rockland, near Ottawa, and raised two boys with FASD now in their 30s.

“We had the advantage of being told that alcohol was a factor. Because our children are aboriginal, people thought about alcohol more.” However, “if you have a blond child,” she adds, “lots of people may not consider it.”

According to Ms. Ross, parents with a child with difficult learning and behaviour problems often go from one professional to the next without being put on the right track. Not only are they “often reluctant to even consider the possibility of FASD … because it is scary for them,” she says, “professionals feel the same way and don’t even mention it.”

Once she knew about Ms. Piquette’s past drinking – and even though her marriage was dissolving (not, she says, because of the children) – Ms. Layte got serious. “I had to become this intimidating, shrew-like creature in order to get him what he needed.”

Diagnosis is the crucial step to specialists such as Vancouver’s Dr. Clarren and Manitoba’s top FASD researcher, Winnipeg geneticist Ab Chudley, who says: “If no kids are diagnosed, there are no services developed. If you pay attention to identifying and counting these kids, governments and schools pay attention.”

Others, however, complain that assessments can be inconsistent – and are no guarantee of treatment. “You think, once you have the diagnosis, you will have the people who will help you,” Ms. Layte says. “Then you realize you have to fight for everything.”

She has discovered that the school system is not equipped to handle Austin, and even a special class run by Family and Children Services for students with severe emotional and behavioural issues wasn’t a good fit.

As government agencies have searched for a solution, she has scrambled to find child care so she can continue to work, more of a challenge now that Alexis has been diagnosed as well.

At 52, she describes her life as “a roller coaster. You think that things will settle down, but they don’t.” And now her children’s other mother suspects that she also may be wrestling with the demons of fetal alcohol.

Ms. Piquette studied the rules of the road to take her driver’s test, but she says “it won’t stay in my head.” Did her own mother’s drinking habit have anything to do with her troubled childhood? Adopted by the farm family she was left with, she too grew up no stranger to trouble. At 6, she set fire to wool in her parents’ room; at 16, weighing 200 pounds, she was kicked out of Grade 11 after skipping more than 100 classes.

Now, she thinks that perhaps she too should be tested for FASD. But of one thing she is certain: “I want people to know: Don’t do what I did.”

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