Fetal Alcohol Syndrome blamed for disruptive behaviour on Okanagan streets - InfoNews

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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome blamed for disruptive behaviour on Okanagan streets

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergei Bachlakov
July 07, 2019 - 12:00 PM

KELOWNA -Some of the worst behaviour on city streets is being blamed on people who with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder.

Only two agencies in B.C. test for the condition, said Bernadette O’Donnell the educational consultant and clinic co-ordinator for the FASD Okanagan Valley Assessment and Support Society, located in Vernon.

With an estimated four to six per cent of Okanagan residents afflicted with it, that means as many as 25,000 residents in the region may be undiagnosed, she told iNFOnews.ca.

“In B.C., there is a misunderstanding that children are diagnosed with FASD and are picked up as youth,” O’Donnell said.

“As they grow older — like I’m talking teenagers — they are so frustrated with not having accurate programming and supports for them, they start to drop out of school, they get involved with street gangs, get involved with self-medicating so involved with street drugs. Families start to break up.”

The syndrome is caused by alcohol being consumed by pregnant women and presents a range of mild to severe symptoms. Many who are affected can lead fairly normal lives,  moreso if their situation is understood and the proper support systems are put in place.

In school-aged children, symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed as autism, which is recognized by the government and financial support is provided to families. But there are totally different strategies needed to help those with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and their families.

Those with the disorder tend to get frustrated and angry because they don’t understand why they are different. They are developmentally slower and by age 16 they may have the maturity of 12-year-olds and can be shunned by their peers.

They have better communication skills than those with autism but are very trusting. Meeting someone on a bus, for example, may lead them to think this is their best friend in the world, so they can be easily manipulated, sexually preyed on or become involved in crimes.

“What starts to happen (as they get older), is you get all kinds of other issues that start to develop,” O’Donnell said. “You get depression and anxiety. They start to develop multi-diagnoses where they have all kinds of mental health issues. As they get older — I’m talking here 19, 20, 22 — they are wanting to get jobs. They can get jobs. They just can’t keep them because they don’t have a diagnosis that will allow the employer to know what kinds of accommodations they need.”

There are also physical effects such as poor vision or hearing, heart and kidney defects and deformed limbs or fingers.

Brain damage caused by the syndrome means many do not understand the consequences of their actions.

In more extreme cases, they are arrested for bad behaviour. When questioned by police, who have no understanding of how their minds work, they are easily led into confessions or seen as lying. When sent to jail they are easily manipulated and abused by other inmates.

O’Donnell’s organization is one of two in B.C. – the other being in Vancouver – but the only one where they will go into jails to test inmates. FASD Canada estimates 60 to 70 per cent of those in prison have the ailment, she said.

In Alberta, by contrast, there are 150 agencies that test for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in adults and many more that test youth, O’Donnell said.

Testing is not easy or cheap. It takes a team – usually a psychologist, physician, occupational, speech or language therapists. It takes about 15 hours to evaluate a person so the cost can be $4,000 to $5,000 – or about the same cost as putting them in jail for a month.

In April, Gaelene Askeland, executive director of the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society, estimated there were 50 to 70 severely “broken” individuals in Kelowna who needed special help to get into housing. Some, she said, likely suffered from the disorders, which do not qualify for support from mental health or other agencies.

O’Donnell, who moved from Alberta to Vernon six or seven years ago, cannot understand why the B.C. government is not doing more to deal with the ailment. In all those years, she estimates her agency has diagnosed less than 50 people.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls made two recommendations calling on governments to address Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. In discussions with the Ministry of Health, O’Donnell is confident some steps are going to be taken there. Even if it deals only with First Nations people, it’s a start, she said.

On that note, she stressed that the disorders are not by any means limited to First Nations. They are largely misunderstood, often with the stigma being that women have to be alcoholics in order to have affected children.

In fact, while the damage can be done at any stage of pregnancy, the 19th to 21st days are particularly “volatile.” Often women don’t even know they’re pregnant by that stage.

While preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the best approach, early testing could change the world for these people.

“The part of the brain that helps everybody think and make decisions and problem solve and organize your world is the part of the brain that’s damaged by the alcohol,” O’Donnell said. “So, they can’t do that on their own. However, if their environment provides structures for them, these guys can work. These guys can have kids. They can parent. They can have a house. They can go back to school. They can do all those things if the rest of the environment around them is structured.”

And that structure can be as little as a care worker checking in once a week, making sure they do things like paying their rent.


  • a small head
  • a smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose, small and wide-set eyes, a very thin upper lip, or other abnormal facial features
  • below average height and weight
  • hyperactivity
  • lack of focus
  • poor coordination
  • delayed development and problems in thinking, speech, movement, and social skills
  • poor judgment
  • problems seeing or hearing
  • learning disabilities
  • intellectual disability
  • heart problems
  • kidney defects and abnormalities
  • deformed limbs or fingers
  • mood swings

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