Columns 2003

FASD epidemic in Alaska

Here’s a scary statistic to cogitate on with your morning coffee.  A child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) will cost society approximately $1.2 million over the cost of his or her lifetime.  That’s $1.2 million per person that you and I will be paying through our taxes, through the loss of productivity that person could otherwise have brought to the workplace, through loss of income that person could otherwise have earned thus allowing him or her to contribute to the costs of a civil society.

Here’s something even more frightening.  When the issue of FASD is brought up, especially among people who provide health and social services in Bush Alaska or on many Indian reservations in the lower 48, it is almost a given to assume that we are working with the most at risk population for this disorder. But we’re not. The most at risk population for producing children with this disorder is white college women.

Despite years of research into the subject, we still cannot explain why some women can drink while pregnant and produce normal healthy children and others produce damaged children. And we are only beginning to pinpoint when damage from drinking will happen to certain parts of the developing child except in general terms of knowing how the baby’s development is progressing in the womb.

What we do know is that alcohol kills brain cells. And a baby’s brain is developing the entire time it’s in the womb.  So it is a pretty sure thing that drinking during pregnancy is going to hurt the baby’s brain.

I found all this information out while attending a seminar for GAL’s and CASA’s this past week. Both those acronyms stand for people who work with kids involved in the social services or juvenile justice systems.  Anyone doing that kind of work is brought face to face with the reality of these kids on a daily basis.

You often can’t tell a child is FASD by looking at them.  In order to get the physical characteristics considered classic for this syndrome, mom has to have been drinking around the third week of the pregnancy when those facial features are forming.  But for anyone with even six months worth of experience in working with these kids in need, spotting the signs and symptoms of FASD becomes almost second nature.  Babies that are born looking absolutely normal, suddenly develop a whole spectrum of behavioral problems about six or seven years down the road that are directly related to mom’s drinking during pregnancy.

FASD kids have problems evaluating situations and making good choices about them.  This is why 75% of kids with this syndrome are victims of sexual or physical abuse. They are born victims because they are born without the ability to discern the dangers that every child faces every day in life and to make a reasoned decision about how to avoid the danger. 

And when these kids get to school, the impact on our educational system is enormous beyond belief.  These children frequently are also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), a big phrase that means that any classroom they are in is one always on the edge of turmoil. It takes a tremendous amount of effort on the part of the teacher to keep these children occupied and quiet.

The saddest part of all this is that although FASD cannot be passed genetically to the next generation, the affected child will never outgrow it. The brain damage done is permanent.  Pictures of their brains show differences in size and structure so obvious that even a layman is struck by it. 

All the fancy terms and long acronyms used in this disorder mean only one thing really, that children born with FASD are children born with a thousand strikes already against them in their effort to live normal, happy lives. A child born with FASD is a child born of a parent who deliberately chose to risk that child’s future before the child ever left the womb.

Oh yes, and for those of you who like statistics, Alaska’s rate of FASD is the highest in the nation.  So that No Child Left Behind Act is going to be one heck of a challenge for our schools to achieve when so many children sent to them were born left behind.