Our View: Break silence about FASD, make awareness universal

Deb Evenson of Homer has worked in education about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) for 30 years. She’s still working for a wider awareness of those cruel afflictions, which are 100 percent preventable — but when not prevented, last for life.

You’d think she might despair. Instead, she has tremendous hope, both for better care and prevention.

Evenson was interviewed as part of the recent two-day Daily News series on FASD by Kyle Hopkins and Marc Lester. Her “Five Things You Need to Know About FAS” is a superb primer on subject, and it’s on video.

She doesn’t mince words. She’s clear that we all pay a price for the stunted development of children whose mothers drink during pregnancy. Their children are born condemned to lives in which violence, vulnerability, and missing abilities guarantee struggle and pain, disrupt families and classrooms and lead to isolation and expensive treatment — and/or criminal activity and prison.

So where’s the hope?

“I believe in the power of people,” Evenson says. That’s not some abstraction. That’s the power created by the courageous women who shared their stories in the Daily News series and stirred conversations throughout Alaska and beyond. Evenson says that as people force FASD out of the shadows and silence, they learn better techniques for dealing with children suffering from them. Once that begins, with teachers in schools for example, they begin to come up with their own ideas, improving and refining techniques.

Parents and families learn too. Once FASD is diagnosed, symptoms are understood as brain-based, and not the fault of the child. When teachers, counselors, parents and medical professionals know what they’re dealing with, they can tailor their work to meet the needs of the child.

“The people living with FASD in our communities are going to be the ones that are going to figure out the solutions that make our lives work,” Evenson said.

To that end, she wants to spread awareness of FASD into every community in Alaska and ideally, provide knowledgeable help wherever it is needed.

Awareness also is central to the Compass piece on this page by Diane King and Becky Porter, who write of the need for trained medical professionals to include alcohol screening and discussion of alcohol use and abuse as standard in visits. The more medical professionals know and practice, the less likely a story like the one Evenson tells about the youngster who had “eight different psychiatric diagnoses before somebody asked about pre-natal alcohol exposure.” And the more likely is prevention of serious damage.

Evenson also stresses support for parents and families dealing with FASD. Get the facts, she says, and then don’t shame anyone dealing with the disorders. They carry enough on their own. Those who fight to stay sober and provide the best for their children need resources at hand and friends in their corner.

And we should remember that FAS and FASD can and do happen to anyone.

In the case of fetal alcohol exposure, the ounce of prevention is worth everything. Evenson has simple advice for women: “Test before you drink.” Find out if you’re pregnant before you take a drink, because there’s no conclusive evidence that any amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. The only sure way to protect your baby? Don’t drink.

Men play a major role too, for both good and ill. At their worst, they cause drinking that deforms the child through their domestic violence and abuse. At their best, they stand with their pregnant partners in protecting their children.

Evenson’s faith — in our power to love the children stricken, in our power to protect children yet to come — is one Alaskans should confirm.

BOTTOM LINE: Wider, deeper knowledge of fetal alcohol afflictions can only improve care and increase prevention.

Originally published February 28, 2014 by ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS in Anchorage Daily News.