Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 19/7/2011 (3386 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A North End beat cop is so alarmed by Manitoba's FASD epidemic that he's put his name on the ballot in this fall's provincial election.
Const. Gerard Allard, a 24-year veteran of the Winnipeg Police Service who has spent most of his career in the downtown and North End, said fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is clogging the court and correctional systems and the current approach is not working. That's why he's decided to run for the Liberals in St. James, a riding now held by the NDP.
"Pretty much everything we do as police has a component of individuals who have suspected or diagnosed FASD," said Allard, who will start going door-to-door on his roller blades in a few days when his leave from work begins. "The thefts, gangs, drugs, arsons -- a good proportion of those people suffer from FASD.... We have to be tough on crime, because there are bad guys out there, but a lot of people are bad because of circumstances, life circumstances."
Allard first came across FASD years ago when he was assigned to investigate a sexual assault case. As he looked at the file, he noticed both the suspect and the victim had FASD.
"That was the first time I went 'What is this?' " said Allard, who may be best-known for his North End hockey program.
Allard doesn't live in the riding he hopes to represent -- which can be a liability for a candidate -- but he says FASD should be an issue in every riding because of the hundreds of millions it costs taxpayers every year in social, health and justice costs.
Like mental illness, FASD raises profound questions for police about the ability of a suspect to form criminal intent, to knowingly commit an act that's against the law. Unlike mental illness, FASD is entirely preventable, and that's where the province has failed, Allard said.
Allard would like to see tougher public awareness campaigns and warning labels on alcohol bottles to educate people who might be social drinkers and not realize they're pregnant. A new program for pregnant alcoholics run out of Mount Carmel Clinic on Main Street is a terrific model, he said.
But those programs won't reach everyone, especially chronic alcoholics who have had multiple children with FASD. Allard said he is open to a get-tough approach in those cases, including forcing pregnant alcoholics into treatment to protect their babies.
He said there will always be some women in the grip of "hellish" addictions who don't mean to harm their fetuses but who aren't capable of voluntarily joining support programs such as the one planned for Mount Carmel. Health experts and community groups ought to get together to find ways to deal with those women, including possibly using court-mandated treatment, he said.
It's a controversial idea that pits the rights of an unborn child against the rights of the mother to control her own body, and so far, the courts and government have been unwilling to force pregnant women into treatment. It's an idea at odds with the province's softer, less punitive approach.
NDP candidate Deanne Crothers, who is running now that MLA Bonnie Korzeniowski is retiring, said she can see where Allard is coming from, given his line of work. But she said the Selinger government is investing $11.5 million this year alone to diagnose, treat and prevent FASD.
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Prevention is the most important element, she said, and the province has several programs, including new drug and alcohol treatment beds for women and a new mentoring program for recovering addicts, to reduce the number of babies born with FASD.
Targeted outreach programs are better than forcing women into treatment, she said.
"I feel it's a much more positive approach, helping women make healthier decisions as opposed to forcing them to do these things," she said.
Conservative candidate Scott Gillingham, the senior pastor at Grace Community Church, said members of his congregation have struggled with FASD, so he's familiar with it.
He said the province has failed to make much headway on the issue, but wouldn't discuss his party's plans to tackle FASD until the platform is released closer to the Oct. 4 election.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder
- Affects more people than Down syndrome and autism combined. In Manitoba alone, an estimated 11,000 people live with it, including 2,000 kids, and that number is likely conservative. No one has ever really counted.
- Costs Canadians at least $5.3 billion each year just for health-care, education and social-service needs.
- 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 to make people with FASD fail.
- Is widely seen as an "aboriginal problem." It is not. Alcohol-related birth defects affect every race and income level. Experts say those most at risk of having children with FASD are students or professional women in their late 20s or early 30s who binge drink on weekends and who may not realize they are pregnant until the damage is done. Having said that, several studies in the United States and on some Manitoba reserves suggest FASD rates are higher among aboriginal people.
-- 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 least visible version of FASD.
The series so far
With the help of a research grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Winnipeg Free Press has spent the last year investigating the FASD epidemic.
Several months ago, in a series of stories, we outlined how a brain affected by alcohol works and introduced readers to many people with FASD, including a former car thief and a young mother who struggle with basic life skills most of us take for granted. We revealed that FASD costs Canadians at least $5.3 billion every year. We also explored how FASD clogs the criminal, school and child-welfare systems, which aren't set up to deal with the disability and often allow kids with FASD to fall through the cracks. We also proposed several solutions, such as a levy on alcohol to fund prevention and treatment programs.