Yesterday the FASD forums were lighting up with reactions to news that a 10-year-old boy with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) was at the center of an international legal battle over who exactly is responsible for helping him to cope with his disability.
According to news reports, the child was born in England and adopted when he was two. The parents moved to Ireland where they reportedly engaged over several years with various therapists, but the combination of FAS and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood dysregulation disorder, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, a sensory processing disorder and a reactive attachment disorder proved overwhelming. They brought the child back to Poole, and “presented” him to the authorities there in belief that he would be better looked after in the UK system than would be the case in Ireland. The couple said they want him “rehabilitated” to their care after appropriate interventions. The child was thrown into a legal quagmire. A UK judge concluded this is a case for the Irish courts since that his where the boy was “habitually resident”. We shall see what happens next.
Parents, carers and others in the online FASD support groups are right in urging that we avoid judging this family before we understand more about their situation. There are countless cases of people adopting children whose needs are more complex than imagined and whose families are strained to breaking point as a result.
Those in the UK who have to fight too hard to meet the basic needs for their kids with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) have been shaking their heads about how bad these parents must think it is in Ireland if they see UK as some sort of shining example of a place where a child with FASD will be looked after.
The reality is that here in the UK too many confront needlessly complicated procedures even to get a diagnosis, that most basic of starting points. Despite the fact FASD may be as common as autism, the stigma runs high and very often parents are advised by ill-informed medical professionals to avoid giving their child this “label”. There are those who have adopted without complete information about the child’s full history, whether deliberately withheld or not. There are those who rightly or wrongly expected continuing support after the adoption. Given the nature of this disability, very many do not understand the full impact of this brain injury until the children hit their pre-teen and teenage years. Too many are ill-prepared for as many as 400 co-occurring conditions that can arise when alcohol crosses the placenta. There are too many who struggle to continue to provide support for their child after the kids reach 18. This is especially devastating and bewildering because the rule of thumb is that kids with FASD can have an emotional age half their chronological age. There are those coping with the secondary issues that can come when earlier interventions fail to meet the needs of a child – the addictions, self-harm, dangerous behaviours that place vulnerable people in jeopardy, incarceration, homelessness, unplanned pregnancies, and more.
Knowing all of that does not remove that ache in the pit of my stomach when I read about these relatively rare instances when a parent does something dramatic that rattles our consciences. Reading about this recent incident, I was instantly reminded of the case where a US adopter put her 7-year old son back on a flight to Russia, a case that shredded to breaking point the fibres of the already strained US-Russian adoption system following convictions of the murder of 19 adopted Russian children at that hands of their adoptive American parents. The mother who bought her child that one-way ticket to Russia was eventually ordered to pay for his care.
When adoptive parents stand and take an oath they commit to be there forever to share a life of love, concern and surety for a child who has known too much insecurity and too much upheaval. Adoption is not fostering. It is not temporary. It is forever. Yes, as with biological children, sometimes families must place a child into a residential center when the family is no longer able to cope or when the child’s needs exceed that of the family’s abilities. Sometimes when addictions and secondary behaviors take hold, there is little parents can do. This is always tragic. But those tragedies should not be compounded by a child being left unloved, unwanted, and disowned again by those who swore there was a place where they would always belong. The child’s side of these stories is rarely heard.
I doubt there is not one person who was adopted who read this boy’s story and did not feel his or her chest tighten from old and painful scars. My husband – successful, happy, well-loved his whole life except for those first several weeks before he was adopted – my sweet husband won’t even engage in these discussions online because it hits so deep and he fears saying things others might find offensive. But it is his truth and the truth of countless others for whom rejection is a baseline from which they must build their lives: trusting in permanence comes hard. Imagine the wallop they felt when they read that this child was “returned” to sender. I try to shield our adopted son from the headlines of this story. It is just too horrible to contemplate – the very last thing I want him to worry about. His life is confusing and complicated enough.
I would hope that any parent who adopts a child is serious about that “forever family” pledge. In a world where divorce is commonplace people think some vows are more ritual than reality. But when it comes to a child’s life, these adoption commitments must mean all that we say they do. When we adopted we were given a long list of potential medical problems our son may have, but no-one so much as mentioned FASD. Nevertheless, we committed – understanding life would unfold and come what may we would be walking this path together. That did not change once we had the FAS diagnosis that provided a framework for us to be able to fully understand our son’s needs.
There is light in every child. There is laughter and love and hope in every child’s heart. Every child wants to be accepted. Every child wants to feel safe and secure and cherished. We all need an anchor in this scary and shifting world. Kids who don’t fit into society’s expectations need that home base most of all.
My heart weeps when I contemplate the life that 10-year old child in the news has to look forward to. In expressing our understanding and compassion for the parents, we must never, ever lose sight of the children. How lonely and lost that child must feel in a world that keeps tossing him around. That poor, adrift, and misunderstood child who suffers because before he ever drew a breath he was in the wrong uterus at the wrong time. He is innocent, like a victim of a drunk driving accident. This child desperately needs our compassion. The issues that got him to this place demand immediate, sustained and serious attention of society.