From judgement to compassion

Jonathan Kennedy holds up a Fetal Alcohol Syndrome awareness poster. Kennedy delivered an awareness seminar for International Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day.
— Angele Cano/NNSL photo

An information session was held last week to bring attention to International Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day.The sparsely-attended event at NWT Centennial Library on Sept. 13 was held as part of a larger initiative to change perspectives on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in the community. The info session resulted from the yearly topic of focus chosen by the Hay River Interagency group.

Jonathan Kennedy, the day program co-ordinator at Supportive Living Services in Hay River, presented the seminar.

Kennedy said, while there are few FAS statistics for the NWT, the Stanton Territorial Health Authority diagnostic team averages about 20 diagnoses per year in children below 16 years of age.

However, the key to these diagnoses that could lead to awareness and coping skills is often shrouded in shame. In order for the team to identify FAS, a mother must admit to drinking during pregnancy.

“Early diagnosis is critical for positive outcome,” said Kennedy. “When you see it as a problem, that’s when the discussion stops.”

Hay River Interagency, a group of organizations tackling drug and alcohol use in the community, chose the topic out of concern for the high prevalence of FAS in the North and misconceptions, stereotypes and lack of understanding.

“Unspoken judgments can act as barriers for taking positive steps forward,” said Kennedy. “It’s often value judgments that stop us from moving forward and doing something positive with FAS.”

He said the attitude often starts with value judgments made on women who use alcohol during pregnancy.

While women subject to poverty, lower education, abuse and addiction issues are more likely to abuse alcohol, he noted affluence is also a risk. A study conducted in Alberta revealed that 40.5 per cent of women earning $80,000 and more report drinking during their pregnancy.

Kennedy revealed 40 per cent of pregnancies in Canada are unintended, and that 72.8 per cent of women between the ages of 18-44 drink alcohol. This means it’s likely many women who don’t know they are pregnant continue to drink.

One in 100 Canadian children is born with FAS and it’s the single leading cause of developmental disabilities in North America. The syndrome can often lead to physical, neurological and behavioural differences in children like distinct facial characteristics, decreased memory retention and lower IQ.

While children affected with FAS may have deficits, they have many talents and abilities that can be honed given a supportive environment, knowledge and awareness.

“The feeling I have is that, if there is a magic bullet for this, it’s education,” said school volunteer Matt Goade. “Children are very quick to notice if the kid next to them is doing something differently and, if they were to introduce a new method at 16, that would be difficult.”

Goade also talked about the importance of a supportive environment, especially in schools.

That was something seminar participant Jackie Karp said she would like to see more of in the town.

“I would love to start a support group in Hay River, but getting parents and caregivers to come out and talk about it is tough,” Karp said. “You need the support of other parents and people.”

Although the seminar was held in Hay River on Sept. 13, International Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Day is actually on Sept. 9.