Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders are gaining widespread attention due to an Alaska Senate Bill and a national act introduced by four United States senators, including Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich.
SB151, which unanimously passed the Alaska Senate, would allow judges to consider the disorders in sentencing. The Advancing FASD Research, Prevention, and Services Act would continue to authorize funds through 2017 for research, surveillance and education.
When a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy it poses risks to the unborn baby. Alcohol passes across the placenta to the fetus and can harm a baby's development. The outcome for infants of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) varies, but almost none have normal brain development, according to the National Institute for Health Research.
Prenatal brain damage makes learning from mistakes difficult, said Vickie Tinker, coordinator for the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) Program at Frontier Community Services.
"People with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are unable to connect consequences with actions," she said. "They tend to be followers."
The Senate bill currently being considered by Alaska's House of Representatives would give judges extra flexibility during sentencing. Under current law, certain mental diseases can alter presumptive sentences, which require a set amount of incarceration.
Tinker said she supports SB151 because it's a step in the right direction.
"Corporal punishment and continuous jailing doesn't work for these individuals," she said. "Also, because they're vulnerable, sending them to jail sets them up for future failure.
"Confinement for crimes helps protect people from themselves and protect the public, but it's not going to rehabilitate them."
Kenai Public Defender Joe Montague said he personally supports the bill, as do other public defenders he has spoken with. He agrees with Tinker that the adults with FAS have difficulty understanding the consequences of their actions.
"Not to make excuses for things they do that might violate the law, but this would give the court an opportunity to take that into account while imposing a sentence," he said.
The Kenai District Attorney's Office Monday did not return call for comment.
FCS receives little if any federal funds. Last year, a community prevention grant the agency was receiving through Central Peninsula Hospital expired. This cut the ability to perform public awareness and education, said Ken Duff, FCS executive director.
The Advancing FASD Research, Prevention, and Services Act would authorize states, tribal organizations and other non-profit groups, like FCS, to develop support services such as vocational training, housing assistance and medication monitoring services for adults with the disease, according to the senators backing its legislation.
"If the federal act passed, and there was a fiscal note attached to it, I could see some great things happening here in Alaska," Duff said. "Not just here at Frontier, but for all of the people doing work in this area."
The Alaska FAS Surveillance Project was established in 1998 by the state. The most recent findings of the project estimate FAS prevalence in Alaska at 1.5 per 1,000 live births, or that approximately 15 children are born with FAS every year, according to the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services.
FCS has been the home of the Kenai Peninsula FASD program since 2000. The program's team has diagnosed about 500 people. Last year, they diagnosed 62 people.
The majority of people diagnosed are children, but there are some adults, Tinker said.
FCS also has the highest number of diagnoses in the state for a FAS program, she said. The diagnostic clinic is the most prolific in Alaska and includes a developmental pediatrician, Duff said.
Despite the many diagnoses and skilled team, the numbers are not representative of the entire picture, Tinker said.
"We have a well-functioning team and awareness in the area, but it's the tip of the iceberg," she said.
The rate of fetal alcohol syndrome remains higher among Alaska Natives than non-Native newborns in the state, according to state officials. Tinker said the people diagnosed at FCS are representative of the central Peninsula's population. The majority of people are caucasian, and some are Alaska Native.
Kenai Peninsula Borough's population is 84.6 percent caucasian and 7.4 percent American Indian or Alaska Native.
Many clients are referred to FCS' diagnostic center through the Office of Children's Services. They come from adoptive homes or are in state custody.
"It's a captive audience to draw from," Tinker said.
People diagnosed with FAS have delayed development and problems in three or more major areas: thinking, speech, movement or social skills. They can get talked into doing things, Tinker said.
"So, they're sometimes involved in serious crimes," she said. "There's kind of a perpetual innocence going on."
Most people with the disease are too high functioning to receive disability waivers for health costs. As a result, FCS provides or recommends local mental health services to those that are diagnosed.
They also work with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to develop separate education plans for children with the disease.
The best intervention is awareness among the population about the disease. If people understands the difficulties for these individuals from preschool through high school they can experience a better life, Tinker said.
"There's no pill to fix brain damage," she added.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.