Parents and social workers ask for more support for children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Parents and social workers are calling for greater support for children diagnosed with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and Government to recognise the condition as a special need or disability.

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, similar to a brain injury, has lifelong consequences and is a leading cause of intellectual disability. 

It's estimated 3000 babies a year in New Zealand are born with the birth defect.

"I think it's much bigger than people are aware of, it's like P and meth is nothing, it's small in comparison to FASD," said Tania Rauna, from Tairāwhiti Children's Team.

Experts say there is no safe level of drinking when pregnant.

"There is really clear evidence that alcohol is the most damaging substance for a foetus.  Cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are actually not as harmful for a foetus as alcohol is," according to Clinical Psychologist Sarah Goldsbury.

Dr Goldsbury said most people would be shocked to know that despite the damaging effects of those substances, alcohol is even more devastating and the impact on whānau is huge.

"Parents who are raising a child with FASD, it's a 24/7 job.  These mums are superwomen, mana wāhine," she added.

Danielle Takoko and her husband fostered 10-year-old Kruz when he was just three days old.  He was diagnosed with foetal alcohol syndrome when he was five. 

Around 80 percent of kids with FASD are no longer with their birth parents and end up in care.

Simple, everyday tasks can be a real struggle for a kid with FASD. 

"Some days we liken it to the files not there anymore.  He might have done the same thing for 60 days and on the 61st day that file is missing from the filing cabinet, and he can't do it any longer," said Ms Takoko.

Because of the damage alcohol has caused to the brain, the effects of foetal alcohol disorder are permanent and can't be treated.

"What happens with FASD is that there is actually no medication that can be given to these kids.  You have ADHD, you have anxiety, they can be medicated.  But FASD doesn't because it's a brain injury," said single mum Denise Walker.

Denise Walker.
Denise Walker. Photo credit: The Hui

Ms Walker says it's been a long, hard journey for her 13-year-old who has been on a path of self-destruction for many years.

 Since the teenager was kicked out of school, he hasn't left his home in more than a year.

"I fear for his mental wellbeing more than anything.  He's isolated himself from all of his peers," Ms Walker said.

 There's no help or support in our education system for children with developmental delays as a result of FASD.

"We've got teachers that are under stress, we've not enough resources for these children coming through with foetal alcohol syndrome.  There's not enough helpers out there for the classrooms, there's not enough helpers at home," added Ms Takoko.

"We always talk about it here as being the one thing no one wants to talk about, and I think if we talked about it more and we admitted it was a bigger problem than P and meth, then maybe the investment in it would be bigger," said Ms Rauna.

 Until then, the statistics for kids like Kruz aren't good, with research showing children with the disability are at a higher risk of youth offending, eventually ending up in our criminal justice system.

"There are some days that you do cry because it's such a preventable problem.  My son doesn't have to be like this.  Unfortunately, the addiction was more alcohol than protecting herself and her baby and it breaks my heart," said Ms Takoko.