Put On Your FAS Glasses
By Teresa Kellerman
April 7, 2002

In today's Arizona Daily Star, I read an article, Young drug abusers, Treatment options shrink, about the lack of access to services for youth with substance abuse problems. The article features a story about David, a teen who spent 99 days in Tucson's juvenile-detention facility in the two years before arriving at Catalina Mountain residential facility for repeatedly violating his probation.

Whenever I read a news story about a trouble child, I usually look to see if prenatal alcohol exposure is ever considered as a factor. It usually is not. But when I put on my FAS glasses, I can see what might not be so obvious to the reporter and other readers. My FAS glasses help me to see Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) in many of our social issues. The invisible suddenly becomes clear.

In this story, I expected some mention of a family history of alcohol abuse. But this is what I read: "David's problems can't be traced to poverty, abuse or even uncaring parents. He had trouble in school and a weakness for peer pressure." Then I looked for and found what I suspected: David is adopted. This has to be one of the biggest red flags when we are trying to figure out where the trouble began. Most kids are placed in adoptive/foster care due to neglect and/or abuse. Most cases of abuse or neglect involve at least one parent with a substance abuse problem, most of the time that means alcohol. When one parent is abusing, there is a good likelihood that the other parent is as well. And the alcohol abuse probably started long ago, before a couple starts raising a family.

There is such a high risk that many of these children were exposed to alcohol before birth. A survey of foster/adoptive families indicates that about 75% of children placed in their homes have symptoms of FAS disorders, although most of them do not have the physiological symptoms required to get a formal diagnosis of full FAS. These exposed but undiagnosed children have poor impulse control, lack of judgment, and are at high risk of getting in trouble with the law and of having substance abuse problems. They often make the same mistakes over and over.

Many of these children suffered psychological damage as a result of abuse, neglect, or getting bounced from home to home. But the primary disability underneath the psychosocial issues is the neurological issue of brain damage from alcohol exposure, which complicates treatment that focuses mostly on the psychological issues. Of course, FAS disorders are not totally to blame, but they are present far more often than people think.

This article also pointed out that Tucson's juvenile drug court program ended a few months ago. Not because it didn't work, but because of lack of funding. That's too bad. As a trainer on FAS issues for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, I would have been available to educate drug court personnel about the relevance of FAS disorders and how drug courts could be utilized more effectively for this population.

Court systems and treatment centers, teachers and school administrators, all professionals and staff in the social services field would do well to spend some time at the FAS Community Resource Center, reading about FAS and the Brain, about the "Soft Signs" when the facial characteristics might not be present, the stories of families who struggle with FASD. Then they can look at the problems they are trying to solve through their FAS glasses. One pair free for every person who reads all the articles posted at the FAS Center's web site at http://fasstar.com/fas. Then the social service system agencies and court programs would do well to schedule a training on FAS for their staff, so that they could see more clearly how FAS figures into so many of our social ills and how we can better address the problems and find solutions that work.

Next time you come across an issue like the one in this article, put on your FAS glasses and see what you find.

Teresa Kellerman

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