Foetal alcohol syndrome

Image for 3 July issue p22Parents for Children is finding ways to help children harmed because their mothers drank in pregnancy. Anne Gulland reports

Binge drinking – especially among young women – has been widely touted as a major social problem. But while the detrimental health effects to the women themselves have been well documented there has been little research on the effects on some of the unwitting victims of drinking excessively: unborn babies.

Expectant mothers who drink or abuse drugs, particularly in the first three months of pregnancy, are more likely to give birth to babies with restricted growth or serious developmental problems. The disabilities can range from full foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which is less severe but can account for challenging behaviour and in some cases learning disabilities.

Three years ago adoption agency Parents for Children became aware that more of the children with learning disabilities and complex medical problems being referred to it had been born to mothers who had misused substances in pregnancy.

The agency has launched a project to assess, support and find families for children affected by their birth mother’s misuse of drugs and/or alcohol. Local authorities are being invited to refer affected children to the project and the charity has looked at existing placements of children with FAS to identify the needs of each child. Five children have been identified and families are being recruited. Each family will be allocated a social worker who will be involved in their preparation, assessment, training and post-placement and post-adoption support.

Edwina Brocklesby, director of Parents for Children, says: “We became aware that the adoption and fostering community urgently needs more information and predictive factors in order to place children with informed, trained and competent substitute parents, who can understand and manage these children’s needs and have realistic expectations of their long-term potential.”

Range of problems

There are no figures on how many children placed by local authorities are affected by FAS although Parents for Children estimates that in some local authorities it could be as much as 60-70%.

Jacky Gordon, development manager at the agency and a social worker, is currently conducting a survey to gain a clearer picture of the problem.

“The problem with FAS children is that they have a whole range of problems – from being affected minimally, right through to severe autism,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard for the assessing doctors to be able to say for certain whether it’s foetal alcohol that’s caused the problems.

“The social worker needs to collect as much information on the history of the birthmother as possible to know whether she drank or took drugs. We have one mother who was involved with sniffing butane gas. Smoking [cigarettes] also has an effect – it exacerbates the problem.”

One of the problems that children with FAS have is in processing information and following and remembering instructions.

Problems at school

“The child is told to do something one day and can understand and carry out that task. But the next day they have forgotten all about it. A teacher might think the child is being disobedient but actually the child cannot remember what they have been told,” says Gordon.

Children find it difficult to do number work at school and while they can read and write they may have trouble with comprehension. Behavioural problems can also be a feature. One of the adoptive families that Parents for Children already works with has three children with foetal alcohol syndrome, says Gordon. “One of the children has no sense of danger – she was in a room with the baby and the baby was climbing up to the window and the little girl didn’t have any sense that the baby might throw themselves out of the window.”

FAS and FASD are difficult to detect at an early age and families who adopt a baby or very young child whose mother drank or took drugs are taking a risk, acknowledges Gordon. Because of this, Parents for Children also offers post-adoption support to families whose children may get a diagnosis at a later date. The agency also offers support to social workers working with adoptive families where it is a factor.

While there is no cure for FAS families can adopt strategies to help them. With the right support these children can reach their potential. “In preparation groups with parents we teach them how they can help their children function better,” Gordon says. “Adoptive parents are very determined and want to help their children. It can be very frustrating when children learn so slowly and see their peers in school doing things they cannot manage. It makes a huge amount of difference if the child is in a loving environment with people who know how to help them.”

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Information on Parents for Children conferences

This article is published in the 3 July edition of Community Care under the headline “Meeting the needs of children with foetal alcohol syndrome”

Key points

● A multi-disciplinary assessment of a child is important in finding someone who can help and support the child and family.

● A full history of the birthmother is vital.

● Children suffering from FAS or FASD need to be given information in chunks – so a blanket instruction to “get ready for school” is useless. Break the information down into small pieces.

● Children with FAS or FASD can have high IQs but learn slowly – patience is key.

Community Care articles on FAS:

Analysis by social work consultant Alison McCormick who volunteers for FAS Aware UK.


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