Drink Tank

Why go to a conference about babies and alcohol?

When asked to consider writing about the value of attending the Australasian FASD conference this coming November, my first thought was, I could write a book!  I will however do my best to keep this story short.

Let’s call a spade a spade. This conference is about booze and so it is not a conference for the faint-hearted. It is however a conference for the curious, the sceptical and the bewildered as much as it is for those more experienced in the art and science of recognising and preventing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).   It will be a conference that seeks to recognise and help the marginalised, the overlooked, the misunderstood and the mismanaged among us. It will be about what we know so far and what is being done – and not done – to protect vulnerable children affected by FASD and their families, and to prevent more children being born affected.

I met to discuss FASD with a politician recently who said, “Isn’t this just about a bunch of women who should know better?” I don’t believe it was a question. To me it epitomises a prevailing attitude of blame.  Not wishing to cast aspersions solely on politicians, for many are supportive, but there seems to me to be some widely held and misguided assumptions holding back progress in this area of public health.  This conference will bring about enlightenment!

On my travels I find front line health and social services workers, who may be aware that FASD may be an issue, but are worried that raising the subject will do more harm than good; and so may say nothing. This serves no good purpose. It can nag at their conscience and leave clients scrambling for answers. Perhaps as we have moved toward greater sensitivity to people’s emotional needs and aim for ‘strength-based approaches’, we have lost some of the art of professional discretion and the wisdom to know when knowledge equals empowerment, even when it has a sting in the tail.  This conference will challenge our practice!

Being about pregnant women and babies, you might think that the conference is unrelated to your area of work. There you would be wrong.  You only have to read the list of categories in the Call for Abstracts to get a sense of the magnitude of this issue. FASD is everywhere there is alcohol. It is just hidden and this conference will bring it to the fore.

After years as a health promoter with a focus on alcohol’s effect on early development, I don’t need convincing that FASD has a link with multiple negative social statistics. We have done very little to investigate this in Australia and New Zealand so far because everyone is busy looking for answers elsewhere.  There is a story about a man who lost his keys and was searching for them under a streetlamp. When asked if he was sure this is where he dropped them he replied ‘No, but this is where the light is shining’. This conference will shine the light where keys can be found!

The conference is about justice – social justice and the sort found in criminal courts. Auckland Youth Court Judge, Tony Fitzgerald is one of the keynote speakers who exemplify the conference theme, Time to Learn, Time to Act.  Having learned more about FASD, he has set about making a positive difference for affected youth appearing in New Zealand Courts.

So in summary, (last chapter of a short story about a long story) the conference will bring together those who may know little and want to know more and those who have scratched the surface with so much more to do; all on the same important quest. As the way forward is not yet cleared of barriers, the conference is a timely opportunity to strengthen our collective efforts and to more effectively reach and improve the lives of those affected by FASD; and those yet to be born.  Are you up for the challenge?!

Christine Rogan

Christine Rogan is a Health Promotion Advisor for the Alcohol Healthwatch Trust, a non-government organisation based in Auckland working to reduce alcohol related harm through effective health promotion. Christine coordinates the Fetal Alcohol Network NZ, established to connect the workforce and families and projects aimed at identifying and reducing the harm associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy.


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