July 21st, 2018

Education key to reduce number of FASD babies

By Mabell, Dave on April 20, 2018.

Sabrina Hacker, FASD adult justice and community outreach program co-ordinator at Peak Vocational and Support Services, speaks at the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs. Herald photo by Ian Martens @IMartensHerald

Dave Mabell

Lethbridge Herald


Sending them to jail is no way to respond to people living with developmental challenges. Instead, a Lethbridge audience heard Thursday, a range of other alternatives is helping those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) contribute to their community.

The problem is much greater than previously thought, participants at the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs were told. And it involves a whole cross-section of the population – particularly young women in college or university.

First Nations communities see about the same incidence as others in Alberta, Sabrina Hacker said, but they’re speaking out and taking action.

The urgent need, she said, is for education and intervention to reduce the number of babies born with FASD.

Hacker, an adult justice and community outreach program co-ordinator for FASD clients of Peak Vocational and Support Services, said Alberta Health officials are not certain how many people are living with the disorder, because many had been misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorder or something similar.

While the proportion of FASD children, teens and adults had been estimated at about one per cent, she said, more recent studies have indicated as many as 11 per cent may be affected today.

“The scope of this is much bigger than anybody thought.”

And while it’s usually described as a brain-based condition, she said there may also be serious physical impacts on the person’s heart, joints or digestive system.

Within the brain, Hacker said, it seems to block the neural connections between the frontal cortex (the rational “executive” portion) and the primitive brain stem. Its victims can’t understand the concept of cause and effect, actions and consequences – and frequently run afoul of the law.

More than 40 per cent of adults with the disorder have served jail time, she said.

In Alberta, “Jail is the default system” to deal with them, Hacker said.

Yet when judges hand down a suspended sentence – with a list of conditions – someone with FASD may have little or no understanding of what’s going on.

“We set them up to fail and keep them in the justice system.”

Defence lawyer Ingrid Hess, one of the audience members who posed questions, agreed on that point.

“Incarceration is not the answer,” except in serious situations.

Jail disrupts whatever community support they have, she said, it puts them in danger, “and people don’t come out any better.”

Hacker said men and women in the Peak programs can learn how to control their impulses with guidance from a trained case worker. The goal, she explained, is to help them become stable and productive, “people who can become taxpayers.”

While there’s no known cure, she said, prevention initiatives must be stepped up.

“We need to talk to women in their child-bearing years.”

When young women leave home to continue their education, Hacker said, they should either quit drinking – or go on the pill. In Alberta, she pointed out, about 40 per cent of pregnancies are reportedly not planned.

Another at-risk group, she said, is young women who remain on the farm or in rural communities – but go out in the evenings.

“So you have farm kids at risk, where drinking is the main social activity.”

Asked about the public’s perception that aboriginal families are experiencing more FASD, she said that’s because some other groups won’t admit they have a problem.

“Their numbers are no higher,” Hacker said. “But First Nations people are more in tune with what is going on in their communities.”

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