A deadly serious but almost invisible problem affects many thousands of children in Manitoba and across the country.
This problem is entirely preventable, yet we are afraid to take serious action to deal with it. This problem is one we should know more about, yet we are afraid to properly research it. This problem demands a national inquiry, yet we would rather not have to think about it.
The problem? Children born with malformed brains as a result of exposure to alcohol in the womb: fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS.
The symptoms of FAS can include both physical and mental problems. In some cases there are serious heart defects, children who cannot walk or talk, or even children who cannot eat and require tube-feeding.
But in the more usual case the child looks normal physically, but does not have the same cognitive ability as a normal child. A fetal alcohol effects child typically lacks impulse control, the ability to learn from experience, and will be highly susceptible to peer pressure.
These children lack many other abilities the rest of us take for granted. These are also children who often have great difficulties at school. As they grow older they frequently become involved with the law, and they form a significant percentage of the youth detention, and later the jail populations. Some of these children work very hard to succeed, but most live difficult lives that too often end early.
How many of these children and adults are there in Manitoba? Of the 10,000 children in care in Manitoba, senior child welfare officials report that about half have “developmental or addiction issues." That is politically correct code for children with FAS.
Although the research on such an important subject is surprisingly limited, there have been some studies on northern Manitoba reserves with the finding that fetal alcohol problems there appear to be rampant. On one reserve teachers reported that half the children did not seem to be capable of learning. Testing revealed that at least one in four children on that reserve was a fetal alcohol victim. So, exactly how many cases we are talking about is an unknown, but the number is in the many thousands, or tens of thousands nationally.
To make matters worse, mothers with FAS are now giving birth to babies with FAS. Although there is no genetic link, a pregnant woman with FAS often lacks the ability to refrain from alcohol. So, in some rural communities and depressed urban pockets there are now grandparents, parents, and now children – all with FAS.
There are many dedicated people who work with fetal alcohol children and adults. They try to raise awareness of this issue among young women who are at risk. Poster campaigns and educational programs are offered by medical people, social workers, teachers, and volunteers. However, to date these efforts do not appear to have stemmed the depressingly steady flow of fetal alcohol births.
We need a more aggressive approach in cases where public education and persuasion do not stop a pregnant woman from endangering her unborn child by reckless drinking and drug consumption. If we saw a parent beating his or her child to the point of causing injury to the child’s brain we would not hesitate in having that parent charged, prosecuted, and jailed. We would also expect immediate intervention by the child welfare system if those parents had more children.
Yet we balk at doing anything more than trying gentle persuasion if a person persists in behavior that is likely to produce a brain-damaged child – a child with a compromised future.
What about authorizing a child care agency to detain for treatment a pregnant woman who refuses to control her addictions while pregnant? A Manitoba child care agency tried to do exactly that. The Supreme Court did not allow it, and left the woman’s future children to their fate in the 1998 case of D.F.G. But one dissenting judge, Justice Major, expressed the opinion that although a woman has the right to abortion, if she decides to have the child she must take reasonable steps to prevent her child from being born with brain damage.
Maybe it is time for another detention for treatment test case to see if Justice Major’s common sense dissent can now become a majority opinion. Our Supreme Court recently reversed itself on the physican-assisted death issue. Perhaps the same thing can happen with detention for treatment.
Although fetal alcohol cases are found in all races and population groups, most of the FAS cases we see in Canada are indigenous children and adults. Is it possible that there is some genetic predisposition at play? Amazingly, there is very little research on this profoundly important point, and nothing recent. Shouldn’t there be?
I suspect that researchers are hesitant to deal with an issue that will provoke accusations of “racism” or “eugenics research." But would it not be tragic if it turned out that there was a genetic predisposition, and we failed to look for it because we were afraid of being called names?
Some conditions and diseases do hit certain groups particularly hard. An example is Type 2 diabetes. It is now generally accepted that people from a hunter-gatherer background, such as Polynesians or North American indigenous people are more likely to develop diabetes than the general population. This finding was made after careful research that, to the credit of the aboriginal leaders, they welcomed. As a result of that research, prevention strategies specific to indigenous people have been adopted. Maybe diabetes and fetal alcohol syndrome are similar in that way. Maybe not. The point is that we should know.
And what about an inquiry into this vexing problem? The best minds could be brought in to investigate the extent of the problem, and to devise strategies to deal with it.
There is going to be an inquiry into the issue of missing women. It would be a grievous error to limit that inquiry to the less than 1% of female aboriginal victims of violence who are missing – the inquiry should look at the other 99% of victims who usually come to violence at the hand of their partner. But the issue of violence to aboriginal women is real, and it deserves an Inquiry. The fetal alcohol issue is every bit as important. The other provinces have the same fetal alcohol problem. In the far north the problem is even more severe. Aboriginal leaders, who have been so vocal on the missing women issue, should be just as vocal on a matter that affects so many indigenous lives. They should demand an FAS Inquiry.
Every fetal alcohol birth results in costs of millions of dollars over the course of that child’s life. Health care, child welfare, special education, youth detention, and eventually jail costs are a huge drain on the public purse. But more tragically, each fetal alcohol baby means another child who is who is handed a life sentence at birth for a condition that is completely preventable.
Surely, we can do better.