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We must do more – Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

The scene – a hospital in an Australian city.

A maternity ward, a private room and a 16-year-old mother with a newborn baby.

This story is not about the girl, perhaps too young to take on this responsibility – she doesn’t get the chance.  This story is not about the newborn because this baby does not get the chance to live.

The young mother is visited by her partner, who is also the father of the baby. He is 15 years of age, known to be cheeky but with an extensive juvenile offending record dating back to his childhood.

Professionals involved in this case think that the birth of this baby will provide some stability, opportunity for reform and a chance for both parents to mature as they take on the responsibility of a new life.

During the visit, the mother visits the canteen, leaving the father with an opportunity to bond and take responsibility for his newborn.

Within a few minutes, the baby is dead.

The 15-year-old is charged for causing the death, and there is no doubt that the baby died as a result of his actions.

Sometime later, while in juvenile detention, the father was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). This is permanent brain damage caused by his exposure to alcohol while he was in his mother’s womb.

He was not diagnosed as part of a routine, effective screening process by the state system responsible for his care, as guardian, throughout his life. He was diagnosed because university researchers included him in their research project.

This boy was known to every government service in the state. However, due to lack of awareness of FASD, lack of understanding of FASD, lack of diagnostic capacity, lack of intervention and supports, this little boy with brain damage – and only a child himself – was never afforded recognition or support for his disability.

He was regarded as an intractable young offender and treated this way.

No doubt hundreds of professionals who worked with him said things like “why won’t he learn from his mistakes”, “why won’t he think before he acts” never realising that his organic brain damage prevented him from being able to think conceptually, avoid impulse actions and transfer learning.

Many outcomes of an alcohol-exposed pregnancy are not this tragic especially when the condition is identified, and the person living with FASD has appropriate support.

Everyone has a reason to know and understand Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder because as a community and society we strive to care for our most vulnerable.

Children, exposed to alcohol before they were born, are at risk of lifelong brain damage. They are our most vulnerable, and they deserve the best efforts of the community to prevent, recognise, diagnose and support FASD.

Recognition of the presence, or even possible presence of FASD, and a truly FASD-informed workforce would lead to better case management, better planning, better risk assessment and better outcomes.

With knowledge leading to interventions and increased recognition of FASD as a severe and prevalent disability – this scene in the maternity ward might be very different.

There would not be a group of health, community services, police and emergency workers scarred for their professional lives by the death of this baby.

There would not be a young mum scarred for her life by the tragic and horrifying loss of her baby. An extended family would not be grieving the loss of one tiny life. A young man would not be in prison.

And a baby would have become a toddler….…….

Louise Gray

Louise Gray is the Executive Officer of the National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (NOFASD) Australia. For over 20 years NOFASD Australia has been dedicated to supporting parents and carers of those living with FASD through a Helpline, promoting prevention initiatives and community-wide information about FASD.


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