The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)defines fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD) as “an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual who was prenatally exposed to alcohol.” These lifelong effects can be physical, mental, and behavioral, and involve learning disabilities.
Walt Teichen of Elmhurst, Illinois, knows this all too well. His 29-year-old son was born with it.
“We adopted Kevin in 1981 when he was only three days old,” said 58-year-old Teichen in a telephone interview. “He was in special education his whole life and nobody could figure out what was wrong. They thought he had ADHD.”
Kevin tended to make bad behavioral decisions, didn’t understand consequences, and didn’t have friends. He talked incessantly and didn’t respect boundaries. Kevin graduated from high school reading at sixth-grade level and doing math at third-grade level. In 2001, after suspecting another cause for his problems, Teichen’s wife sought out a mental health professional.
Said Teichen, “The psychiatrist said Kevin had FASD, would be arrested soon and often (because of his behavioral choices) and he needed to spend the rest of his life in a group home.”
Almost on cue, a week later Kevin was arrested for shoplifting and trying to pawn goods to help an acquaintance purchase heroin. A second time, police arrested him for helping a person steal $30,000 in auto parts. Another time while driving a cab, he stole a customer’s credit card number to purchase pizzas for friends. Most recently, police charged him with aggravated sexual abuse concerning a 16-year-old girl.
In 2003, Teichen helped found an organization, now called FASteam.org, to raise awareness about FASD and the permanent damage done to children when mothers drink alcohol while pregnant. SAMSHA estimates that at least one percent of Americans have a fetal alcohol syndrome disorder and most don’t know they have it. Most people with it don’t have the distinctive facial features, said Teichen.
He noted a large percentage of babies adopted from Eastern Europe have FASD and perhaps one-third of the U.S. prison population has it. “It’s more prevalent than autism,” he said. “The numbers are staggering.”
Despite the enormity of the problem and the billions of dollars it’s costing American society, the entire U.S. has only one residential program especially for people with FASD. It’s in Duluth, Minnesota, he said.