By Jenny Neyman
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and emotional trauma don’t just affect one aspect of life.
“(FASD) affects their behavior and their ability to learn and to fit in with the rest of the world,” said Vickie Tinker, FASD coordinator for Frontier Community Services. “And there is like a 90 percent overlap between trauma and FASD. The new research shows that exposure to trauma causes the same sort of physical brain changes that alcohol exposure does. Isn’t that wild? So you put those two things together and it’s kind of exponential the damage that it does.”
Nor, as Tinker points out, do they only affect a single segment of the community.
“It’s multigenerational, it affects school kids, it affects people in their relationships, in their jobs, in their ability to carry on daily life. And we could pick any one of those areas — mental health, medical care, school, corrections, juvenile justice — and talk for days about how FASD and exposure to emotional trauma impact these people. So it’s a pretty big issue,” she said. “… It’s not a problem specifically to people who drink alcoholically or have addiction problems or whatever kind of stigma we put on it. It’s not a Native problem, it’s not a poverty problem, it’s a people problem, and it really happens across the board.”
So an effective response needs to be as multifaceted and community-based as the impacts of these conditions. That’s the takeaway from a conference held May 27 in Kenai with the purpose of identifying the needs for services and support for those affected by FASD and emotional trauma, better coordinating the help and resources that are available, and seeing what can be done to address the gaps.
“All the way through, those children start young, they go through the infant learning program, they go into the school system, they’re in high school, they’re driving around in cars, they need job training — all kinds of things like that. The justice system, how does that interact with people who have brain-based differences?” said Noelle Miller, a counselor for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. “So, if we can make more cohesion for those different organizations that are working with those kids. But there’s a huge need for their support and for the support of the families that take care of them.”
Miller’s interest is twofold. She works with kids affected by FASD and emotional trauma through her job, and her adopted younger brother is affected by FASD. She’s been impressed by the variety of resources available that she’s learned about through the conference, which first met in April and now has spawned the working group that met in May. But more needs to be done, she said.
“Our community has a huge need for good foster parents. It’s very hard for anyone to raise a child well who is a neurotypical child, and if you take someone with brain-based differences it can be very challenging. So finding those people in the community and just letting the community know that there’s a need, and supporting those families more who choose to take those children on I think is a huge issue statewide, not just here in the Kenai,” Miller said.
Lisa Schmitter, a therapist with Aurora Counseling, sees a need for more counseling services on the peninsula, and for an integrated approach to treating those impacted by FASD and emotional trauma, where all the agencies and organizations are working together in a holistic approach.
“If you can’t provide therapy at the moment of the crisis then people are going to rely upon skills that haven’t been working for them and you’re just going to be reinforcing them. So if we could provide more therapy for people, and be able to provide the supportive services, the medical services, the various OT/PT, education support, so to really be able to work as a team so that people feel that support around them,” Schmitter said.
Brainstorming and collaboration from the group have identified various smaller, relatively easily attainable changes that can be worked on to provide better care as a community. And participants are also thinking much bigger, including establishing a trauma center on the peninsula.
“We talked about two extreme ends and kind of everything in between,” Tinker said.
One end would be just expanding the developmental clinic already offered through Frontier to be a sort of outpatient clinic. The opposite end would be a group home that could serve as a place to stabilize kids coming out of chaotic situations before they’re returned to a family member or put in a foster home.
“What that would look like we’re not sure yet,” Tinker said. “A big part of the problem is we have to look at what’s sustainable in this season of very, very tight budgets and services being cut, Medicaid probably not being expanded, what’s realistic, and how can we make it work in a fiscally responsible way but that it holds together well?”
The next step is to form a task force to continue pursuing these ideas. It’s a big job, but at the same time, there’s a big need in the community.
“It’s hard to make change happen, but I think anything positive you can do to help a population is always going to benefit your communities,” Miller said. “And our community has this need, and it has for a long time and it will keep having it. And so if we can do anything to help our families, to help foster families, to help kids, to help adults who have these issues, it’s going to make our community stronger.”
For more information on Frontier’s developmental and FASD diagnostic clinics, and on the effort to create a trauma center on the peninsula, contact Tinker at 714-6648.