Fetal alcohol clinic opens in Juneau

Facility allows two people per month to undergo intense physical, psychological analysis

Posted: Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Hundreds of children and adults in Juneau may suffer from fetal alcohol disorders and not know it, enduring short-term memory loss, depression and learning disabilities.

Some of them soon will have a chance at diagnosis so they can make changes to improve their lives. The Alaska Division of Behavioral Health, with the cooperation of 50 other state agencies and nonprofit organizations, has opened a Juneau diagnostic clinic for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) or fetal alcohol syndrome. The clinic at Juneau Public Health Center will allow two people per month to undergo intense physical, psychological and mental analysis.

The Division of Behavioral Health spent $75,000 to organize the clinic, said Diane Casto, manager for prevention and early intervention services with the division. Juneau's is the 14th such clinic to open in the state.

"We have the highest rate of FASD in the state," said Ric Iannolino, the clinical team coordinator for the clinic. He is employed by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a major supporter of the clinic.

"An average of 126 children are diagnosed with alcohol-related brain damage in Alaska per year," Iannolino said. Many more children and adults suffer from the disorders without an official diagnosis.

Diagnosing the disorders is an important part of treating the disease. Because a mother's prenatal alcohol consumption causes brain damage, the disorders cannot be cured. But a person's quality of life can vastly improve if schools, employers and social workers understand the person's behavior is the result of FASD, said Iannolino.

In 1998, the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health began a process of determining how to better treat the disorders in Alaska.

"One of the things we recognized very quickly was that within the state of Alaska we really didn't have any diagnostic services," Casto said.

Diagnosing the disorders involves psychiatric and physical evaluations. Twenty health agency workers, including physicians, nurses and occupational, physical and speech therapists, traveled to the University of Washington to receive specific training.

Five of those professionals will spend one day a month examining and diagnosing a person who is suspected of having FASD. Though the actual diagnosis takes only a half-day, the process can be exacting. Parents or guardians must fill out loads of paperwork and gather and submit medical, psychological, school and corrections records before a patient is admitted to the clinic.

A "parent navigator" - a caretaker of a person with fetal alcohol disorders who is familiar with the diagnosing and treatment process - is assigned to each new parent or caretaker seeking a diagnosis, Casto said.

The symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome often are diagnosed as attention deficit disorder or other learning and behavioral disabilities. Knowing that a otherwise will change the treatment the child receives and will help schools create Individualized education plans for students.

"Sometimes (the diagnosis) gives people a relief, as odd as that sounds," said Justine Muench, a public health nurse at the Juneau Public Health Center. "It helps them move forward, to say this isn't me that's making my child act this way, this is a medical disorder."

Though the clinic is only set up for diagnosis, staff members refer patients to various treatment options, Muench said.

Twenty-four people have begun the process of setting up a diagnosis session with the clinic, Muench said. Though children are prioritized, adults are encouraged to apply as well. Documentation of prenatal alcohol consumption is required for all diagnostic sessions.

For more information about the diagnostic clinic, call Ric Iannolino at 796-7230.

• Christine Schmid can be reached at christine.schmid@juneauempire.com.

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