Page last updated at 23:39 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 00:39 UK

'Alcohol damaged my adopted child'

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Pregnant woman
Government advisers recommend no drinking during pregnancy
When Julia Brown adopted, she was aware that her new baby daughter had problems.

For several years medics went through possible diagnoses.

The suggestions included autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyspraxia - a movement disorder.

"Her diagnosis ran to two or three lines. It was always 'she has this with this'," said Julia.

Brain damaged

It wasn't until her daughter was five or six that doctors established that she had in fact been brain-damaged in the womb by her natural mother's drinking, and she was diagnosed with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

Julia has come to terms with her daughter's disabilities, but says the early years without an accurate diagnosis made things difficult.

Alcohol misuse in pregnancy causes a hidden, but very real disability in the affected child
Community paediatrician Mary Mather

"We knew that we were adopting a child with some sort of difficulties, but we had no-one to compare her with," she said.

"Then, when she went to nursery, we noticed that she had poor balance, poor spatial awareness and inattention.

"We had very little support and very little awareness of it - we had to put two and two together.

"Her mother was not an alcoholic, but we knew that she had had alcohol during the pregnancy."

However Julia, who lives in Oxfordshire, has no way of knowing how much she drank.

Support centre

Her daughter is now nine, but is at the same developmental stage as the average four-year-old.

She has a catalogue of health problems relating to the womb damage, including a squint, repeated ear infections and poorly developed teeth, and finds tasks such as doing up buttons very difficult.

The girl has no sense of danger and a lack of impulse control, meaning that if she wants something she takes it.

Julia Brown
Julia knew her adopted daughter had problems

Now the UK's first centre has opened in London to support children who were affected in the womb by their mother's drinking.

Its aim is to research and establish the needs of the 7,000 such children living in the UK.

Parents for Children (PfC) is the only adoption charity in England dedicated to finding homes for children with disabilities, including those with FASD.

It set up the centre in response to the growing number of children affected by alcohol in the womb, who are being put up for fostering and adoption.

Some local authorities are reporting that up to 70% of children with a disability who need adoptive families have drugs and alcohol in their background.

Once children have been assessed, they and their families can be offered a package of care, support and advice, tailored to their needs, to help the child reach their full potential.

Dr Eddie Brocklesby, director of PfC, said there needed to be better awareness of FASD.

"Courts, social workers, teachers, health experts and prospective adoptive parents are making decisions about these children's future, without realising the full implications FASD can have on their long-term development," he said.

"As FASD is so little recognised, it makes it difficult for parents and teachers to understand these children's needs. Our centre hopes to help redress this."

Tell-tale signs

Mary Mather, a community paediatrician who works for the centre, said it was often very difficult to tell at the time of adoption which children might be affected.

"Alcohol misuse in pregnancy causes a hidden, but very real disability in the affected child," she said.

"The child may not have the facial features which allow the problem to be recognised and diagnosed.

"These features - smaller eyes, flatter cheeks and a less well developed groove between the nose and lip - only occur if alcohol is misused when the face is forming at the start of pregnancy."

But she said the damage, which can cause very severe emotional and behavioural problems, can occur at any stage in the pregnancy.

She said large amounts of alcohol had been known to have serious effects, but that it was not known whether there was a "safe" level. She said the only advice could be not to drink alcohol at all.

"If you don't drink, there is absolutely no risk."

Recent government advice says pregnant women and those trying for a baby should avoid alcohol completely.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says there is no evidence that a couple of units once or twice a week will do any harm to the baby, although it agrees abstinence is the safest course.

Q&A: Alcohol and pregnancy
26 Mar 08 |  Health
Help for alcohol syndrome parents
08 Sep 00 |  Scotland


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