Children pay later for mother's drinking

By Sarah Reynolds

News Herald

Lake Havasu City, Arizona


Don and Vicki Brewster Today on the ninth day of the ninth month, expectant mothers are reminded not to drink during pregnancy.

Designated Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Day, today is a symbolic and poignant reminder to mothers not to drink during pregnancy.

Many families have to live with the grim results of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

When Don and Vicki Brewster adopted their children in 2000, they knew the biological mother drank. But they had no idea what their kids were facing because of it.

"They had major behavior issues, and we weren't getting answers as to why," Vicki said. "They told me that I needed to work on my parenting skills."

It wasn't until they took their children to a specialist in Phoenix where they received a correct diagnosis. All three of the siblings had permanent brain damage from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Don and Vicki knew nothing about FAS then, but they've since become experts. They organized a support group for parents and were certified by the mental Arc of Tucson Hospital to train and teach others about this disorder.

On Wednesday, the couple educated teachers at Havasupai Elementary School on how to spot FAS, and on how to deal with it in the classroom.

"Because the children have permanent brain damage, they can't change their behavior, Vicki told teachers assembled in the library. "It's not that they won't turn in their assignments; it's not that they won't behave and grasp the concepts. It's that they can't."

The problems that come with FAS translate into aggression, impulsiveness and emotional "melt-downs," according to experts. Recall and retention have also been damaged, subsequently rules and consequences are often forgotten the next day. Most have normal or high IQs, but reach academic plateau around age 12. They lack the ability to use the intelligence they have, say the experts.

After what he heard from the Brewsters, fifth-grade teacher Scott Richards said he thinks one of his students may be afflicted with the FAS disorder. "One boy fits the mold," he said. "He's not diagnosed with anything currently."

FAS often goes undiagnosed. In addition too FAS, Many of these children have Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Sometimes they're misdiagnosed altogether with other mental disorders, and put on different medications than a FAS child would need.

There are actions teachers can take to allow these students to function in a normal classroom. Rules must be clear and direct. Consequences for negative actions should be immediate, as should rewards. A place in the classroom, like a beanbag chair in a corner, can be set aside so children can deal with emotional outbursts alone, rather than disrupt the entire class with a meltdown.

According to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome 40,000 infants - or one in 100 born - have fetal-alcohol damage. The Arizona Center of Health Services estimates 900 are born each year in the state.

The Brewsters said these numbers would only go up. Binge drinking among women of childbearing age is on the rise. It can take six weeks for a woman to realize she is pregnant. Even normal alcohol ingestion can damage a fetus.

"You're killing the brain cells," Don Brewster said. "It can cause holes big old gashes where it eats away at it."

There is no known amount of alcohol that will definitely lead to FAS. In some cases, just one drink is enough. The Brewsters say there is no "safe" amount an expectant mother can consume.

The damage done is permanent. The Brewsters believe two of their three children, now ages 6, 7 and 8, will be living with them for the rest of their lives. The lack of retention and abstract thinking makes the children unable to take care of themselves and make decisions without a caretaker.

Vicki Brewster said one way to prevent this from happening, and deal with it when it does, is to remove the stigma attached to the mothers of FAS children. If parents are ashamed of what they might have done, they won't admit there's a problem.

"We've got to take away the judgment on the mom's drinking so we can get these kids to get the help they need," she said.

FAS Community Resource Center
FASD Awareness Day