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Think of the last time you met somebody whose brain was damaged by alcohol. Right. The bleary aboriginal guy who hit you up for a loonie yesterday on the street.

Now meet Colette Philcox.

At 23, Colette is a tall, engaging young woman with pale skin and straight blonde hair. She makes terrific conversation and is clearly very smart. If you didn't know her, you'd never guess that she has FASD -- fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

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"I saw a pregnant woman with a glass of champagne the other day," she groans, "and I just wanted to grab it out of her hands."

FASD is organic brain damage caused by maternal drinking during pregnancy. If you think it doesn't affect anyone you know, you're wrong. If you think it's confined to aboriginal communities and downtown street corners, you're wrong again. Eighty per cent of FASD children are not aboriginal. Most look completely normal. A surprising number are offspring of the middle class.

I once had some friends with an FASD kid. (Back then, 15 years ago, nobody knew about it.) He was the middle child in a brilliant family, and he was the classic bad seed. He lied and stole, threw temper tantrums, got kicked out of school, got in trouble with the law. Apart from that, he was completely charming. His parents (father and stepmother) tried everything -- counselling, private school, boot camp, tough love -- to no avail. He wound up as a petty criminal, unable to hold a job for long, with a couple of kids he couldn't support. He broke their hearts.

No doubt, there are a couple of FASD kids in your child's school. They're the really, really bad ones.

Colette's parents, Brian Philcox and Bonnie Buxton, adopted her when she was 3. Bonnie, a journalist, has told Colette's story often, and Colette has told it for herself. The story is of a lovable but terrifying child, who couldn't handle school, took to the streets and got in trouble with the law. The professionals couldn't figure out what was wrong with her. When she became pregnant at 17, they went in search of her birth family to learn her biological history.

"My mother would drink Lysol if she couldn't get anything else," Colette told me. Her father has done his share of jail time. She has a half brother in the pen. She's met some of her birth family, but not her mother. "Why would I want to?" she says.

FASD kids lack an external brain. They need someone to help them focus, to correct their poor judgment, remind them to show up for things, and save them from themselves. Colette is lucky. Her parents are her external brain, and she knows it, and she relies (sometimes, anyway) on them.

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Four years ago, Brian and Bonnie founded FASWorld, a support group for parents of FASD kids, and Bonnie has written a book, Damaged Angels, that will be out next spring. They'd like the rest of us to know that drinking during pregnancy is the leading cause of developmental and cognitive disabilities among children. The incidence is between 3 and 10 in 1,000 births. It doesn't take much alcohol to poison a fetus -- a night out on the town before you know you're pregnant can do the trick. You don't even have to get drunk -- even modest social drinking isn't safe.

The clear-cut connection between drinking and fetal brain damage raises some important but uncomfortable questions about human rights and civil liberties. For example, there is now a simple test for newborns that detects the presence of alcohol. Should it be mandatory? Should doctors have the power to order the test if they suspect FASD? Should a mother who gives birth to a brain-damaged child get mandatory counselling so that she doesn't have another one? What about more coercive forms of prevention? How far are we willing to go to restrain a pregnant woman in order to protect her fetus?

Colette made heroic efforts not to screw up as a mother. She didn't drink during her pregnancy, and she didn't drink during her second pregnancy two years ago. Today she has two gloriously healthy, normal children. She went back and got her high-school diploma, and she's planning to start college next fall.

But there are no fairy-tale endings when you've got FASD. As her kids got older, Colette found it increasingly hard to handle the demands of raising them. Then, last June, she had "really rotten" breakup with their father. Now her kids are living with their grandparents. Colette hopes to get them back some day. Meantime, Bonnie and Brian, now in their 60s, are in the child-rearing business again.

We put warning labels on cigarettes. Why not booze? We take a big chunk of gambling revenues and use it to treat addicts. Why not alcohol? Those FASD babies are tomorrow's underclass. More than that, they are a tragedy that didn't have to happen. And if you think this tragedy isn't on your doorstep too, you could not be more wrong.

mwente@globeandmail.ca

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