Hamilton initiative spreads awareness of fetal alcohol syndrome

On Hamilton Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Day, a community initiative aims to spread awareness.
Patrick Bradford, who suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, married his wife Lori (left) nearly one year ago. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

 Patrick Bradford is like just about any uncle.

When the 28-year-old talks about his two young nephews and the brand new niece, his face lights up. The smile grows when Bradford says Hunter, one of the boys, lists him as a role model.

And he's been warned in the way mother's do by his sister, Hunter's mom, to watch what he does and what he says around the kids.

But this warning is special for uncle Patrick. He suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a result of exposure to alcohol before he was born.

Bradford spoke to a small crowd at an event Monday organized by the Hamilton FASD Community Initiative for the internationally recognized awareness day.

"FASD is a major cause of preventable birth defects and the leading form of developmental delay in North America," said Susan Degner, a member of the community initiative. "It's not just a women's issue, it's a people's issue."

Individuals with FASD typical exhibit memory deficit, poor problem solving skills and sometimes have distinctive facial features like a thin upper lip and small eyes.

While he doesn't have those facial features, his growth was slow and he's a smaller than an average 28-year-old man. In school, that made him a target for bullies.

About one per cent of the Canadian population has FASD.

In Hamilton, about 30 per cent of the kids in care of the city's two children's aid societies are diagnosed with a FASD, said Enrico Digiandomenico, a crown ward supervisor at the Hamilton's Children's Aid Society.

He suspects another 20 per cent of children there are undiagnosed.

"The average in Canada is 50 per cent of kids in care," Digiandomenico said. "We're right on track in Hamilton, unfortunately."

Digiandomenico worked in child protection services in Hamilton for 28 years. He said it's only been in the last 10-15 years that people in Ontario started to talk about FASD.

"It was first diagnosed in the early 70s in Seattle and quickly moved to BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan," he said. "We're a little slower here in Ontario."

Now, Digiandomenico is one of four workers at Hamilton's Children's Aid Society trained to provide support to caregivers for children with FASD. He and his team work with families of children who are in their 30s.

"They are going to need the support into their adult years," he said.

Adoptive mothers May Stanley and Linda Calderhead can both attest to that.

Stanley's 36-year-old son was diagnosed at age 21. She supports her son by helping out with his three children and with the finances too.

Calderhead is raising her 11-year-old grandson because her daughter is unable to.

"Sometimes responsibility get passed for the next generation," she said. "[The kids] generation have to suffer."

These moms need support themselves. They attend a monthly support group for parents are caregivers with FASD.

"It's really hard," Stanley said. "Really the only people who understand are the people who've actually been through it."

Bradford and his wife now live in Dundas, close to his parents. His older brother got married and adopted Bradford as a baby so he wouldn't get put into foster care, he said.

They knew his mother, who died when Bradford was 9-months old, drank during pregnancy.

"I need lots of help from my parents," he said.

Bradford is also close to his nephews and niece. Despite his day-to-day challenges, he still has a typical wish any uncle would have.

"I just want to see them grow up," he said.