National conference signals growing awareness of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

By Don McSwiney, Faculty of Social Work


Dorothy Badry, University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work professor, is a leader in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder research. She heads a national conference focused on training front-line workers from across the country

In Canada it is estimated that about one per cent of babies of babies born will be affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). This constitutes a serious public health concern that could impact up to 350,000 Canadian babies each year. It is the most common non-genetic birth defect in North America and it poses serious challenges to families and social agencies across the country.

This week, delegates from across Canada are meeting at University of Calgary’s Hotel Alma for an important national four-day conference aimed at helping participants to better recognize FASD in children early in their development and to support individuals, families and communities affected by FASD. They are also being trained to return to their communities as mentors and share what they’ve learned.

A positive approach to FASD

“This conference takes a strengths-based training approach to FASD,” says Dorothy Badry, PhD, a Faculty of Social Work researcher who organized and will help to lead the conference which runs Feb. 6-9. “Strength-based is about approaching FASD from a positive lens, that recognizes strengths and capacities, and is focused upon building health-promoting responses in areas of prevention and intervention.”

The first-of-its-kind conference is a partnership between the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Flin Flon, Man., the University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work, and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) funded Aboriginal Head Start Programs. PHAC provided the necessary funding, which, as dean of the Faculty of Social Work, Jackie Sieppert, PhD, says, reflects a growing national awareness of the issue. “I think the fact that we have delegates coming from every corner of Canada shows the growing recognition of this important issue,” says Sieppert. “Dorothy Badry has been recognized as a leader in this field for many years, so we were pleased and honoured to host this event and to support the growing recognition that a positive approach is by far the best way to help families and build communities affected by FASD.”

Connecting with the community for change

The conference is part of a strategy on FASD that reflects the fact there is no one-size-fits-all approach to making headway on the issue. Awareness and prevention messages need to be tailored to the community, including Indigenous communities. Which is why the four-day gathering is so important, it marks a sea-change in engaging the communities by bringing together people who are already connected and at the heart of the issue in their respective communities and developing a common, positive approach.

“You can’t just come into a community and say, ‘Hey! This is what I have for you.’ The delegates already have a relationship, and are respected and trusted by their communities,” says Kerrie Moore, an Indigenous psychotherapist who will provide Indigenous cultural guidance for the conference. Moore is Cree-Métis and considered a knowledge keeper and an elder; she also works with the University of Calgary Native Centre counselling students. “This conference provides the newest information and practice to take back to those communities and provide more knowledge and to train others. My role will be to provide information on Indigenous protocols and epistemology, and to create a spiritual connection and a holistic approach to the work we are doing around FASD.”

A hope to spark generational change

For her part, Badry hopes this is just the start of a national dialogue on FASD and the beginning of community sharing a common, positive approach to making a difference. “We all know that children benefit from any kind of early intervention when they have a disability. We also recognize that FASD is very preventable and there is a human story that leads to FASD. Any education and intervention that we do in FASD will be of great benefit to the current generation, the next generation and the generations to come. One of the hopes of this week is to bring about change. Make a difference one person at a time, one family at a time, and just to believe that this knowledge can improve the lives of children and families, and be a foundation for effective support and intervention.”

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