Kids in care suffer disproportionately from prenatal exposure to alcohol. But prospective parents say they are too often in the dark about what’s ahead of them. As Vanessa Hrvatin discovers, that can lead to heartbreaking outcomes. Illustration by Lola Landekic for National Post.


Adoption had always felt right to Tracy.

She had wanted to be a mother for as long as she could remember. But she had never felt the urge to be pregnant, and she knew many kids desperately needed a home. By 35, she had been married for a year, had settled into a three-bedroom house in a suburban community outside of Ottawa and she and her husband Eric had satisfying, stable careers.

They were ready.

At first, they looked into an international adoption — it seemed like the fastest way to build their family. But it proved more costly and less transparent than they hoped. And they soon learned that kids from the Eastern Bloc, where they had focused their attention, had high rates of prenatal alcohol exposure.

After about a year, they decided a domestic adoption would be a better fit. In late 2008, they underwent a home study and started the 27 hours of mandatory training. Another year later, when they finally were considered “adopt ready” by provincial standards, they met with a social worker from the Children’s Aid Society, who talked them through what the agency then called “zones of tolerance,” scenarios to help prospective parents assess which special needs they can — and can’t — handle.

It was “challenging and upsetting,” Tracy recalls — a frank discussion of parenting on a “different level.”


“Your mind immediately goes to what these kids have lived with,” she says. “I remember going down the list and thinking ‘God, how could someone even ask that?’ ”

Tracy and her husband agreed they were equipped to adopt a child with a history of mental illness, abuse or drug exposure. But they admitted that they did not feel prepared to take on a child who needed around the clock medical care. Tracy says they also made it clear that a child with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder “was probably more than what we could handle.”

Then, in the spring of 2010, more than three years since they started looking into adoption, the couple was paired with not one but two children — a four-year-old-boy and his seven-year-old half-sister. When the adoption was finalized, they were told their son’s birth mother had just had another baby boy in need of care as well. By Thanksgiving of 2011, Tracy had a family of five.

Given the circumstances, Tracy and Eric were aware that all three of their children had experienced trauma of some sort. They were told their eldest son probably had ADHD. But none of this explained why both he and his sister continued to struggle in school despite interventions such as modified math and reading programs and occupational therapy. Or why, by 2, their youngest son was missing critical milestones like walking and talking.

Tracy decided to join a number of adoptive-parent support groups to see if other families were having similar experiences. She also started reading more deeply on children who had experienced trauma, books that were filled with highlighter and sticky notes by the time she was through. One disorder came up again and again: FASD.

Tracy tried to push the possibility from her mind. It can’t be that, she thought to herself. Still, when she and Eric heard about an FASD training session in Hamilton, Ont., they scrambled to find childcare and made the five-hour trek.

“We sat in that room listening all day and left that afternoon feeling like we’d been run over by a truck,” says Tracy.

Soon after, the couple pursued diagnoses for all three children. Their daughter didn’t meet the criteria for FASD, but Tracy says both her boys have the facial features indicative of the disorder — small eye openings, a thin upper lip, and no groove between the nose and lips — as well as cognitive and sensory challenges. Her youngest son, now 8, still can’t read and needs to be supervised at all times because of his impulsivity and inability to understand cause and effect; her eldest son, 13, requires special breaks at school to keep him focused.

Tracy now works from home so she can manage the boys’ packed schedule of appointments, as well as meltdowns that can make getting ready for school a multi-hour process. Although less frequent now, she says meltdowns at school have also led to sometimes daily calls asking her to pick up the boys. In addition, she estimates that last year alone the cost of psychological counselling, medication and special programs for her three children added up to about $25,000.

“This isn’t a case of let’s just figure it out for another year or two,” she adds. There is no cure for FASD. “This is the rest of their lives. Whether either one of my sons could ever live independently is a different question — just from a pure life-skills perspective they will need incredible support around them as adults.”

Tracy and her family cannot be identified. Provincial law prohibits naming anyone involved in a child protection hearing. But the Ontario mother believes it is important to share her story — which she says is troublingly common among adoptive parents. As a board member for one large support group in the province, Tracy says she’s met dozens of families who were either completely unaware that their children had been prenatally exposed to alcohol or were ill prepared to raise a child with FASD.

In Canada, child welfare is a provincial responsibility and there is no national data on FASD among kids in care. But research published in 2014 on Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario found a prevalence rate three to four times higher than estimates for children in the general population. Broader research on child welfare systems across North America suggest the prevalence of FASD could be as high as 17 per cent.

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