Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 23, 2000
Help for vulnerable moms
CSS pilot project out to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Pregnancy and alcohol don't mix. If a woman drinks when she is pregnant, her baby drinks too, exposing the child to serious harm.
Children prenatally exposed to high levels of alcohol and drugs in their mother's womb are usually born with fetal alcohol syndrome/effects (FAS), a neurological disease that causes irreversible brain damage and/or central nervous system dysfunction.
This disease impairs children's intellectual, emotional and social skills, leaving them often unable to form the necessary judgment required to understand the consequences of their behaviour.
Children born with fetal alcohol effects are highly likely, in later life, to have mental health problems, end up in trouble with the law and/or be unable to live independently.
In a bid to prevent FAS, which afflicts one in every 100 Canadian babies and costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, Catholic Social Services last year launched a three-year pilot program that helps women at risk stop drinking and develop a healthy lifestyle.
The First Steps program provides one-to-one educational, social and outreach support to women who have abused alcohol during previous pregnancies or who have had a child with fetal alcohol effects.
This group is comprised of women between the ages of 18 to 36 who have been identified by various Edmonton social, health and child welfare agencies, hospitals and community professionals as being at highest risk of giving birth to an FAS child.
First Steps is currently involved with 25 women, out of 35 admitted when the program began in October last year. Most are making remarkable progress, including the fact some have been able to stay sober for more than six months. Some of those who dropped out have returned to their addiction.
Most of these women have a 10-to-15 year history of alcohol and drug abuse, have problems with the law, some have never worked, have abusive partners or multiple partners and require support to even find a place to live, noted program manager Mary (Vandenbrink) Berube.
Program staff, Berube and three mentors, lend these women all the support they need, from helping them to get on welfare to providing them with counselling and assistance with budgeting, life skills, nutrition, housing and legal issues.
Mentors even take women to appointments, find food and clothing for them and help them get their children back from Child Protection Services when they are in a position to care for them. The average First Steps woman has three children, with at least two of them being cared for by child welfare.
"We take them to whatever is the appropriate service to get their needs met," said mentor Gay McKinnon. "We never abandon them. We never give up on them. Our goal is to help them turn their lives around so they can stop abusing alcohol and drugs."
Women in the program are encouraged to plan their pregnancies and when they are not able to do so, they are told to see their health practitioner.
"We are very blunt with our women," Berube said. So far none of the women in the program has gotten pregnant, a fact which Berube and the mentors see as a sign of success.
"For every baby we prevent from being born with FAS we save (taxpayers) more than $5 million," noted McKinnon. "That's what it costs to raise a child with FAS/E."
Marc Barylo, vice-president of development and community relations with CSS, agrees the costs are high.
"Experts estimate that more than $1.6 million in direct service costs - health care, special education, child and family services, income support programs, the justice system - are spent on each FAS/E child and more than $6 million over the course of their lifetime," he said.
Each year 4,000 Canadian children are born with the disorder, which is six times as common as AIDS, responsible for one-third of those in prison and is the leading cause of retardation in the western world. About 60 million people worldwide are afflicted with the disorder.
Children born with fetal alcohol effects must deal with lifelong permanent disorders of memory function, impulse control and judgment, says Berube, who also works with child welfare as a provincial FAS specialist. "FAS/E interrupts forever a child's brain development."
Most of those with fetal alcohol effects have trouble learning from previous consequences and so they are prone to criminal behaviour, said Berube.
The First Steps program is aimed at preventing fetal alcohol syndrome by helping women at risk and also by creating awareness of the disorder among the general population. "We are doing it because it can be done," Berube said. "We can prevent FAS/E."
The program is based on an initiative of the Fetal Alcohol and Drug Unit at the University of Washington. Finding of this project show that after three years of being matched with a mentor:
The program, at a cost of about $250,000 a year, has funding for two years. Catholic Social Services is currently raising funds for the third year "but we need funding for the future," Berube said. "Our goal is to have ongoing sustainable funding."
- Eighty-five per cent of mothers had been involved in alcohol treatment programs.
- Sixty-seven per cent of mothers had at least one period of abstinence of six months or more.
- Sixty-nine per cent of children were living with their own families.
- Ninety-four per cent of children were receiving good child care.
No government funds are available for the project and current funding, provided in part by the McDaniel Family Foundation and the Edmonton Lottery Foundation and the Sign of Hope campaign, will cease in late 2001.