Support group hopes to raise awareness of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Birth defects take walk's spotlight

Posted: Friday, July 14, 2000

A three-mile walk being held on Saturday will do more than provide exercise and fresh air.

The Walk for Awareness, sponsored by Voices for the Children, is an effort to raise community awareness of the disabilities suffered by children exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. The walk, which begins at 10 a.m., will make a circuit around Kenai Central High School, with a lunch at Pizza Hut planned afterward.

The group will carry signs to inform the public what they are doing, and why.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effect are growing problems on the Kenai Peninsula and nationwide. Voices for the Children is a support group for parents and foster parents of children affected by these disabilities.

"It is a lifetime problem," said Christine Hutchison, event coordinator for Saturday's walk. "These kids need a functioning brain to walk beside them."

Voices for the Children started out as a support group for foster parents in 1997, but as it became evident that so many children in foster care were affected by alcohol, Hutchison said, they changed their focus from just foster parents to a fetal alcohol syndrome support group.

Consumption of alcohol during pregnancy affects a child in many ways. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), said Hutchison, is a term for the visible physical deformities which sometimes appear in these children.

Not so visible -- and harder to diagnose -- is Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAE), a term used for brain damage and mental dysfunction caused by alcohol. Those affected by FAE may have no physical deformities and may even appear fairly normal, but the disability affects them in everyday life.

"These kids are not going to develop at the same rate as a normal child would," said Hutchison. "In school they'll have trouble with reading and math, following directions and telling time. When they get to high school, changing classes is very confusing to them. They need supervision 24 hours a day, and a very structured environment."

Children with FAE may become a serious problem to society when they reach adolescence, and many of them are in the custody of the Department of Corrections for their transgressions.

"As teenagers, they get in trouble because they're very impulsive and have no concept of right or wrong," Hutchison said. "Their friends might say, 'hey, let's break into this house and see what kind of good stuff we can grab.' A normal child might say no to that, because they're afraid of getting in trouble, but the FAE kid doesn't know any better and will just go ahead and do it.

"Or maybe he'll see that someone left their keys in a car, and and think, 'I'll just take it for a little drive.' And then, of course, he gets arrested and ends up in jail. It affects the entire community because the state has to take care of them."

Because it is so difficult to diagnose, teachers and judges may not be aware of FAE and its effects on a teen-ager or young adult who is in trouble. To help mitigate this problem, Voices for the Children recently held a meeting to establish a medical team specially trained in diagnosis of alcohol-related disabilities for the Kenai Peninsula.

Consisting of a doctor, social worker, early interventionist, clinician and a nurse, the team will begin work this fall, financed by a grant from Frontier Community Services. Until now, the peninsula has been served in this capacity only by a diagnostician from Anchorage who visits several times a year.

"After a parent finds out a child has FAS or FAE, they need continuing support for a lifetime," said Hutchison. "That's where we come in, to help parents share ideas, how to take care of these kids and hopefully make them more successful in life."

The most tragic aspect of FAS and FAE is that, unlike other disabilities, they are entirely preventable.

"It's only in the last 50 or 60 years that so many women have had serious drinking problems," said Hutchison. "It wasn't socially acceptable for a woman to drink before that; years ago women weren't even allowed in bars. But now they go out and drink in them all the time.

"Teenagers, especially, like to go party on the weekends, and they don't think about what it might do to a baby. It's critical to tell them the effects of drinking during pregnancy."

The group holds regular meetings on the last Saturday of each month and plans several other events, including recognition of National Fetal Alcohol Awareness Day on September 9 and an appearance by state first lady Susan Knowles at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce on September 13.

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