Liam Curran is a PhD INDI Social Sciences student at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. He has over 25 years’ experience working with young people in residential homes, child and family social work and children’s disability services social work, and is also a member of the McGill University Centre for Research on Child and Families (CRCF), Montreal, Canada. In this post, he explains the biggest obstacle for many children with FASDs and those supporting them – having their disability acknowledged so they can access much needed support, and suggests how we can improve diagnosis and support for people with FASD.
You can find out more about FASD, how it affects individuals, how it can be identified, and how best to support those with FASD in Liam’s co-authored book, Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: A Guide to FASD for Parents, Carers and Professionals.
A life-long neurodevelopmental disability that needs to be SEEN
It has long been established that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) have a significant impact on all aspects of child welfare provision. Perhaps one of the most recognised publications of the modern times was developed on the evidence of eight children suffering from ‘failure to thrive’ in the Washington Child Welfare system, who were taken by social workers to the clinic of paediatricians, Dr David Jones and Dr Ken Smith. The rest is well known thanks to the paper written by Smith & Jones which became a seminal moment in society’s understanding of fetal alcohol, launching a robust level of research and public interest around the world.
There is still a compelling need for child protection and welfare services to recognise the burden and impact of FASD on the services they provide. Recognition can aide the prevention of this disability, when allied health personnel become champions of change by imparting the ‘no safe level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy’. When responding to this ‘compelling need’, it is imperative that we consider our current principles surrounding a child’s security and overall development. In intervening for cases of health-related or educational neglect, it is also important to consider the neurodevelopmental factors associated with FASD. As stated in the opening paragraph, the eight children taken to the Washington clinic in the early 70’s were initially labelled with a ‘failure to thrive’; neglect and FASD can be finely intertwined, and require astute skills for Social Work personnel to differentiate.
Perhaps intervention by social workers is required when the caregiver cannot control/manage the behaviour of the young person in their care. FASD has long been seen as a significant concern in the area of a child’s development; problems identified in these children include immaturity leading to behavioural, social and academic challenges when set against the normal developmental milestones of developmental expectations. Poor self-regulation and sensory integration is equally well acknowledged within this cohort of children and such developmental deviation and subtle abnormality can have a significant impact on how the child manages the day to day expectations within a regulated society. Sadly, these children commonly present in child welfare intake systems, but their neurodevelopmental/neurocognitive disability is rarely seen and acted upon. Both neglect and behavioural problems are usually among the two highest categories of concern referred to state systems of child welfare and protection, and it’s within these two categories that FASD is most common.
It is also important to acknowledge the cumulative effect of yearly estimates of FASD births and how this impacts on child welfare services. In the UK, the yearly estimates of FASD births is set at 7,000. As child welfare services are delivered for children age 0-18, the cumulative number of births would be 126,000 across this age span of childcare provision. With a large body of evidence pointing to 50-60% of children born with an FASD condition entering the child welfare services, there can be no argument that FASD is having a disastrous but largely unseen impact on the service. Equally, what research has repeatedly shown and demonstrated is that the prevalence rates of FASDs lands on both our fostering and adoption communities. This in turn will lead to a fiscal burden carried by the child care providers of such services, demonstrated again in a large body of research findings.
Professional acceptance of FASDs’ neurodevelopmental and neurobehavioral presentation is vital to providing the support needed to these children and caregivers. The range of psychosocial interventions that have a proven success rate with these children are required to be common place in social work education modules of child & family teachings. Equally, these skills need to be honed in competency based education provided by employer organisations as part of service development goals.
How can we improve the trajectory and prospects of children suffering prenatal alcohol exposure?
- National policy advisors need to implement FASD as a recognised disability within disability legalization and policy developments.
- Currently available early intervention specialist services need to have the skills and training to Identify, Screen & Refer children for clinical assessment
- Improve the service accessibility of individuals and their caregivers in accessing state services of supports.
- FASD competency education should become mandatory in state services of professional development protocols.
- Link current state education strategies on alcohol harm should be altered to firmly include the prevention and understanding of FASD within society.
- The Social Work profession needs to reclaim, and become a stronger advocate for, the psychosocial needs of both the individuals and caregivers of those living with this disability.
There is a pressing need for this unseen disability to be recognized and acted upon in all aspects of child welfare interventions. Failure to do so is casting these children into a range of secondary disabilities, where they struggle in life with homelessness, mental illness, addiction and clashes with the criminal justice systems. How can this be achieved?
In order for social work professionals to become stronger advocates, they need to be supported in their skill development on a number of levels.
- The disability of FASD needs to be fully taught within social work undergraduate education by the university bodies responsible for developing future social workers.
- All child welfare and child protection service providers who are responsible for professional development of their workforces to commission professional FASD education modules from providers qualified to deliver such education
- Equally for Social Work to function effectively in responding to FASD, they need FASD as a health disorder to be understood by allied health professionals, policy makers and the public in general.
You can find out more about Liam’s book Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: A Guide to FASD for Parents, Carers and Professionals, read reviews and order your copy here.