NY teen lands role on spinoff of 'Law and Order'

News Staff Reporter

The Buffalo News


Despite being born with FAS, 13-year-old Kathrine Roberts of Lake View is making progress as a special education pupil at Frontier Middle School.


For months, Kathrine Roberts has been begging her grandmother to let her get blond highlights streaked through her light brown hair.

Shirle Roberts hasn't relented yet. But Monday, her 13-year-old granddaughter will get some star treatment nonetheless - when she plops down in the hair and makeup chair on the set of NBC's "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."

The Lake View teen will appear in a guest spot in an episode about fetal alcohol syndrome - a disease from which she suffers.

When Roberts thinks back to when she and her husband, George, first took custody of Kathrine, at 13 months old, what her granddaughter is set to do seems like a miracle.

"She was such a pathetic little thing - she couldn't sit up, she hardly weighed anything at all, and she cried and cried all the time," Roberts said.

None of her well-practiced mothering tricks could shush the tiny baby, who wailed all day and all night long. After months of visits to specialists, doctors finally diagnosed Kathrine with fetal alcohol syndrome, the result of her mother's heavy drinking during her pregnancy.

The Roberts family hopes that Kathrine's appearance on the show - and the content of the episode - will educate viewers about the consequences of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

The issue is particularly pressing in Buffalo, where the number of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome is three times the national average of about one in 1,000.

"This is the leading cause of mental retardation in this country, but it's 100 percent preventable," said Helen Weinstein, of the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse.

Problems that result from the disorder range from slight learning disabilities and facial deformities to serious heart defects and severe retardation.

What women often don't understand, Weinstein said, is that there is no safe time to drink during pregnancy. The beginning of a pregnancy is crucial for the development of the baby's organ systems and facial features, while most of the brain's growth occurs during the final months.

At any time, alcohol consumption could derail these crucial developmental milestones, she said.

Kathrine had trouble learning to speak and move around, and she still needs special education at Frontier Middle School. But today the outgoing, giggly girl participates on her school's swimming and track teams, and loves to travel.

When Sandy Gangell, a social worker who helps Kathrine through the genetics clinic at Women's and Children's Hospital, heard about "Law and Order" call for a teenager with fetal alcohol syndrome for a guest spot, she thought immediately of Kathrine.

"She understands that she's different, and she knows what caused it," said Gangell, who also runs the New York State Pregnancy Risk Network. "She and her family understand that this is not only a lifelong disability, but an opportunity to educate other people. If they can be the face of this problem, they're willing to do it."

Within hours after making the initial contact with "Law and Order" executives last week, Roberts had located a video camera, filmed an audition tape of Kathrine at home and shipped it overnight to the show's producers in New York City.

Then the calls started pouring in - from producers, people who told her how to get Kathrine a work permit, costume people - and plans were set for the three-day trip.

"Choice," the episode in which Kathrine will appear, will star Josie Bissett, a former "Melrose Place" star, as well as Shirley Jones, of "The Partridge Family" fame.

NBC officials said the show is scheduled to be the program's first sweeps episode, which will likely run Nov. 4.

Kathrine's unsure how long she will spend on the set of the show, but she plans to pack plenty of sightseeing into her trip. Among the sites she hopes to scope out so she can add postcards to her huge collection: the Statue of Liberty and ground zero.

And, if she has time, she would like to join the screaming masses outside the set of MTV's "Total Request Live" one afternoon.

She also imagines she won't be able to resist getting a bit star-struck.

"I just can't wait to see the actors - to be one of them!" she said.

Kathrine only has two lines on the show - a quick swath of dialogue in which she greets a visitor to her character's home and asks if they'd like to play cards with her.

She has been practicing since the script arrived at her home and this week was trying out several different hammed-up versions of her lines.

"I love acting," she said. "But I don't think this is going to be my career or anything."

Instead, she's dreaming of things even bigger than the small screen - her elaborate plans include a move to Kenya, where she would like to breed lions, tigers, cheetahs and leopards, and live in a house that has a pool filled with dolphins.

Despite the potentially far-reaching effects of her granddaughter's role on the show, the Roberts' hopes about the show's effect are purely personal.

"We want Kathrine to know that as she becomes a young lady, she has a family that loves her and wants to push her to the very limit of her potential."


FAS Community Resource Center