A Collaborative, Holistic Response to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

The Surrey & Vancouver FASD Collaboration Roundtables project continues to make progress on a problem that can be devastating to individuals and families, expensive and largely invisible: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, or FASD.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy.  These effects may include lifelong physical and learning disabilities, and behaviour problems. Health Canada estimates that FASD affects approximately nine of every 1,000 babies. The condition was not recognized until the 1970s and remains difficult to diagnose because symptoms vary significantly. What is clear, however, is that people with FASD typically struggle in school, at work and in life.

“People with FASD confound all of society’s systems: educational, judicial, medical and social,” says Ruth Annis, former executive director of Pacific Community Resources (PCR), a non-profit organization that delivers educational, employment and family programs and services in British Columbia. “Many individuals with FASD don’t have the skills needed to learn or to follow instructions. Many tend to end up out of school, unable to hold down a job and repeatedly in trouble with the law.”

The efforts of Annis and her husband Andy Wachtel to develop appropriate services for people with FASD has inspired a long list of organizations to follow suit.

The Absence of FASD Services

The roots of the project reach back into the 1980s, when Annis and Wachtel adopted two boys who were diagnosed with FASD. In order to address the lack of support services available for their children, Annis and Wachtel designed a training program for PCR staff and foster parents of children with FASD.

“Very early on, we recognized that we had to involve other groups that work with individuals with FASD, such as schools, family-service agencies, police and the courts,” says John Gotowiec, PCR’s Coordinator of Development for Education Programs.

The training program soon caught the attention of the Vancouver Police Department. After attending an FASD training session, Inspector John de Haas of the Vancouver Police Department contacted PCR and asked to have a program designed specifically for police.

“For police officers, people with FASD can present significant challenges, regardless of whether they are perpetrators, victims or witnesses,” says de Haas. “People with FASD often present as rebels with little respect for authority figures, such as police officers. And that often leads to even more problems.”

With funding provided by the Department of Justice’s Youth Justice Fund, in 2005 the Vancouver Police Department and PCR developed a two-day, skills-based course. More than 300 police officers in British Columbia have since completed the course and it has become a widely shared resource throughout Canada for providing similar training to police.

“The course teaches officers to recognize people with FASD,” says de Haas, “and how to get them to cooperate. Consider, for instance, getting a witness statement. Many kids with FASD learn at an early age that people respond when you tell them what they want to hear. So when a police officer asks them questions, they might change their answers until they get a positive response. It’s a learned behaviour, though, rather than a conscious effort to deceive. During the course, officers learn, among other things, how to gather statements from people with FASD.”

The FASD Roundtables

The success of the training programs led to additional efforts to address FASD in British Columbia. In 2006, the Vancouver Police Department received funding though the Department of Justice’s Youth Justice Fund to develop the FASD Roundtables.  This project brought together representatives from police forces, school boards and the legal and social-service communities, along with members of the general public. Roundtable sessions in Vancouver and Surrey built on the work already done by the Vancouver Police Department and PCR.

“The Roundtable meetings helped different sectors develop a common understanding of the problem - a crucial first step toward creating effective solutions,” says John Gotowiecz. “Many professionals who come into contact with FASD really don’t understand what they’re dealing with. So we end up with frustrated parents, teachers, police officers, lawyers, judges and corrections officials. And the people with FASD don’t get the help they need.”

The FASD Roundtables continue on an ad-hoc basis, striving to identify and implement evidence-based solutions that address the many challenges people with FASD face. Today, secondary schools designed specifically for children with FASD operate in both Vancouver and Surrey.

FASD affects people differently, so a range of solutions is needed,” says Gotowiec. “And we absolutely must share information about what has worked and what hasn’t. Through the Roundtables, police, teachers, social workers, therapists and other professionals all learn from one another and develop solutions that address the specific issues each of them faces.”

As awareness of FASD has grown, so too has the number and availability of prevention and support services. Collaboration between a wide range of stakeholders has been shown to be the most effective means of providing support to individuals with FASD who may find themselves in conflict with the law. 

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” says John Gotowiec. “But the FASD Roundtables create the broad collaboration we need to make tangible, long-term progress.”

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