FASD

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's not a one-way street

Once a chronic car thief, he got the message

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Ryan Twohearts thunders between the truck and the store, contorting himself to grab as many shrink-wrapped packages as he can in one trip.

With his baggy pants, camo hoodie and big workboots, he's a little out of place amid the frilly, girlie things in the backroom of the women's clothing shop in Kildonan Place mall.

But this job delivering merchandise, and how well he does it, are a source of pride. He can load a truck in about an hour and his old buddies from the street think he's a "goodie-good boy."

"That time, the past, who I was, it just disgusts me now," said Twohearts, now 18. "It feels like I want to be a better person."

Twohearts stole his first car when he was 12 or 13, mostly because he was bored. Over the next few years, he became one of the city's notorious chronic car thieves.

 

 

It culminated in what he calls the "Hummer situation," one he is wary of talking about and can't fully remember because he was drunk.

In 2008, he and two friends stole the SUV, went on a joyride through the North End and hit a police cruiser, injuring an officer.

"It's the adrenaline rush that you get from it," said Twohearts, who has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. "You can ask any criminal that steals cars. He'll tell you the same thing."

Twohearts' mother was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs when he and his sister were growing up. Child welfare officials finally caught on when Twohearts cracked his head open in the neighbourhood playground and his mother couldn't take him to the hospital because she was passed out. After that, the siblings spent about a year living with grandparents and with a foster family that Twohearts remembers fondly.

"My mom wouldn't let CFS take us unless we were together all the time, me and my sister," said Twohearts. "We were like pieces of gum stuck together."

By 16, he had dropped out of school, after some run-ins with teachers he felt patronized him. He didn't yet know he had FASD, with all the learning and behavioural troubles that come with it.

"I felt like I didn't need school because I had all this money from doing crime, like what every criminal thinks."

Twohearts was wary of gangs because of what happened to his half-brother, so he managed to avoid some of the more violent crimes that go with street life. A decade ago, Adrian Bruyere was stabbed to death by a gang member during an attack near McPhillips Street and Selkirk Avenue. But that death, along with the death of Twohearts' father when he was young, nagged at him.

By 16, Twohearts had rung up 10 convictions, spent months in jail and the rest of the time partying.

He was a headline waiting to happen.

Now he's the sweetheart of staff at New Directions, who have seen their share of the toughest, most troubled kids in Winnipeg.

"I basically told myself 'enough with this stupid crap'," said Twohearts. "You gotta work for a living. You can't always get things for free."

It was a probation officer who hooked Twohearts up with the New Directions program. Attending the program's classes and services every day, all day, became part of the conditions of his release from jail.

New Directions offers what it calls a "wrap-around" program, where kids get intense, one-on-one help with everything from mental health issues, housing, job-hunting, family services, navigating the court system and pretty much any other service that might keep a Level 3 or 4 car thief out of trouble.

"They basically teach you how to live," said Twohearts. "If it wasn't for this program, I would probably be sitting in jail right now."

More than 100 kids like Twohearts have gone through New Directions' special program for car thieves. Staff say about 40 per cent of them have some form of FASD.

"They all look really normal and cool," said Jeffrey Hatcher, a clinician with New Directions. "You have to really talk and interact with them to see they're not getting this, they're not getting that, but they look like they are."

For Twohearts, his FASD contributed to his decision to do crime, but he said he also made choices on his own and takes responsibility for them.

"I didn't know any better. I had nobody to show me," he said. "I couldn't see ahead of me. It looked like I was in a bubble."

Through the program, Twohearts got work experience, including a job as a grunt cleaning up the Cindy Klassen recreation centre when it was being renovated. He also got help with his reading and writing, still a struggle.

Now, his relationship with his mother is much stronger, and he rarely sees his old crime buddies. When he's not working delivering clothes or the Winnipeg Free Press to carrier depots, he mostly hangs out with his sister and her boyfriend, playing video games.

He's looking to get a place of his own later this year, and he's hoping his criminal past won't stand in the way of his getting a drivers license soon so he can get promoted to driver.

"I just wanted to let the old friends I had know, 'you guys don't have to have a hard life to live. You don't always have to go down the wrong path. You can always change your life. It's not hard, you just have to look forward.' "

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

FASD....

Stunts individual brain cells and major parts of the brain, such as the main processing centre of the cerebellum and the corpus callosum, a thick band of fibres in the brain's core that connects the right and left hemispheres.

Affects more people than Down sydrome and autism combined and costs Canadians at least $5.3 billion a year.

Is virtually invisible and mired in stigma. Diagnosis is tricky, services are spotty and schools, the courts and the job world are almost perfectly set up for people with FASD to fail.

Is widely seen as an "aboriginal problem." It is not. Alcohol-related birth defects affect every race and income level. In fact, experts say the group most at risk are students or professional women in their late 20s or early 30s who binge-drink on the weekends and may not realize they are pregnant until the damage is done. But several studies in the United States and on some Manitoba reserves suggest FASD rates are higher among aboriginal people. Poverty can be a factor in alcoholism, and there is some research, with conflicting conclusions, into whether indigenous people have some genes that alter the way alcohol is metabolized, leading to higher rates of abuse and binge drinking.

Includes fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which is the most severe form of FASD with facial defects. It also includes ARND or alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, the biggest, but most invisible version of FASD. People with ARND don't have the facial features, but they suffer many of the same serious brain and behaviour troubles that make life a struggle.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2011 H1

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