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Targeting teens who drink

New program aims to prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in babies

Posted: Monday, May 21, 2001

Teens who have unprotected sex after drinking alcohol or who imbibe while pregnant are being targeted by a new program at the Juneau affiliate of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence.

The program strives to prevent babies from being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, known as FAS, an alcohol-caused brain defect that may lead to impulsive, illegal behavior.

"We are trying to educate some of the individuals getting into child-bearing age about the consequences of partying and pregnancy, which often go hand in hand," said Matt Felix, executive director of NCADD.

Under the program, anyone 19 or younger who is convicted of being a minor in possession of or consuming alcohol is referred to NCADD, said Dawn Miller, an alcohol counselor and administrator of the program.

NCADD expects 176 referrals a year from Juneau courts, plus additional referrals from the state Division of Family and Youth Services, teachers and foster parents.

"We have our work cut out for us. The prevailing statistic is that Alaska has four times the rate of FAS of the rest of the nation," Miller said.

Felix believes the new FAS program, funded by a $7,500 grant from the federal Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, will be a new weapon in the war against FAS and its related birth defects. The grant came through in March and seven teens passed through the program in April.

"We want to educate the public - not just adolescents but also their parents and family members who are involved in substance addiction," Miller said.

The term for that involvement is "codependency," sometimes described as the long shadow that chemical abuse/dependency casts upon others.

"If the alcoholic forgets a meeting at work, other employees fill in. If he has a hangover, the wife calls in for him and makes excuses rather than letting him face the consequences of his behavior. The 'hero child' fills in when an alcoholic parent can't make dinner or do the housework," Miller said.

Those referred to the FAS program are given a basic screening test that reveals the stage their dependency has reached whether it was an isolated situation, an instance of regular use, an instance of abuse or full-blown dependency. They view a nine-minute video on FAS, and are then informed of their options.

"If the arrest is a fluke, they might face community work service. If it's the result of addiction, they might go to in-patient treatment in Washington state or Oregon," Miller said. In-patient treatment can last 90 days.

"The kids who come through are worldly. We have worked with kids at Juneau-Douglas High School who have been in treatment three times," she said.

For details about the program, call Miller at 463-3755. Teens may refer themselves.

One reason to try to prevent FAS is that many children born with the syndrome grow up to have problems with the law, Felix said.

He believes 20 to 30 of the 180 prisoners at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center had FAS as the root to their illegal behavior.

Felix gives the example of the April 24 robbery at Alaska Pacific Bank when discussing the impacts of FAS. Felix said he tried to get James Shales, the 20-year-old charged with committing the $1,800 heist, into a FAS program in Oregon, but he wouldn't go. If only his birth mother had not drunk alcohol while she was pregnant, perhaps Shales could have been spared the impulsive nature that has found him convicted of theft in the past and now facing charges in the robbery, Felix said.

"There isn't a mean bone in this kid's body," Felix said. "But from moment to moment, telling right from wrong is inconsequential."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.



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