Getting FASD on the radar: More on public support for adoptive parents

Every few months, we go to a support group for parents of children with FASD. The demographics vary; some are dealing with kids in their early years, some with teens, and some with young adults. But in a context like this, there’s just no way to express what an invaluable resource the group’s been. There isn’t enough advocacy or awareness of the unique challenges presented by FASD, and frequently it gets lumped in with autism and other developmental disorders. I can’t say enough good things about this group, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the hard work and commitment of Bonnie Buxton and Brian Philcox. Their web site is here.

Yesterday’s meeting was notable for a particular reason: the attendance of Mitchel and Stephanie Bergman, who were written up in the Star recently and noted in a previous post here. Genuine heroism isn’t always easy to recognize because it doesn’t always take the forms we’re led to expect in movies, but these are people who’ve adopted not one, but three children who are showing many of the signs of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The emotional, logistical and financial demands this places on them is something I can barely imagine.

Doing something like this takes a special kind of commitment. One would think that as a matter of policy, it’s something that merits public support. But read the Star piece; health and developmental issues aside, taking kids out of foster care means the level of public support can drop precipitously. That needs to change. Perhaps there’ll be a way to make it an issue in the next provincial election. 

In the meantime, though, I’ve been brooding about some of what I’ve read in the online comments on the Star story. Reduced to its ugly essence, it’s just another manifestation of the Pissed-Off Taxpayer theme that propelled Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair and provides daily fodder for the tabloid press. While I’m committed in principle to civility and respect for my fellow citizens, there’s no reason that this kind of mean-spirited, myopic stupidity needs to be respected or taken seriously.

Let’s rewind just a little bit. Not so long ago, the notion of citizenship was paramount. It carried connotations of decency, of devotion to the common good, of commitment to something greater than oneself, and of obligation to one’s fellow citizens. It was an implicit recognition that as members of a civil society, we pool our resources and efforts in the collective pursuit of objectives that we can’t achieve on our own. Citizenship was something to be aspired to, something to be proud of, and an implicit recognition that in addition to rights, we also have responsibilities to our communities and to each other.

Over the last few decades, it’s become less fashionable to talk about citizenship, and many of us have become used to seeing ourselves as “taxpayers” rather than citizens. This has a long list of unpleasant consequences, but chief among these is the way it frames our relationships to government, to society, and to one another. When you think of yourself as a “taxpayer” (or “customer” or “shareholder”) rather than as a “citizen,” then the only lens through which you view others is one which frames them as people and institutions taking away your hard-earned tax dollars. And we all know how that conversation goes: gravy trains, special-interest groups, wasteful social spending, and so on. It’s a small, sad and limited worldview based on selfishness and resentment, and it’s not much of a basis for community.

It’s exactly this sort of unthinking, simplistic attitude that’s manifesting itself in a disturbing number of comments on the Star piece. Why should I have to pay for this, these people chose to adopt these kids, their own fault if they can’t afford it, why the hell should we look after them, why should we have to spend our money helping other people who have nothing to do with us, subsidy this subsidy that, yada yada yada, rant, snarl, drool. 

Here’s why, in one short paragraph: What people like Bonnie and Brian and Mitchel and Stephanie choose to do is for the Public Good. It makes society better. As citizens, we all benefit from what they do in ways I can’t even begin to list here. In that sense alone, it merits public support.

I’ve touched on the moral dimension already, although I’m not convinced it’ll find purchase in what’s apparently some pretty barren ground. So consider the fiscal implications as well: the more time these kids spend in foster homes, the less likely they are to finish school. The less help they get, the more likely they are to suffer additional damage, and the more likely they are to wind up in trouble. The extent to which they’re winding up in the criminal-justice system has prompted an in-depth look from the Canadian Bar Association, in fact. Which means additional drains on society’s resources. 

So here’s the bottom line, Mr. and Ms. Pissed-Off Taxpayer: you can pay now, with early intervention programs, special education, resources and support for folks like the Bergmans and their kids, vocational training, guidance and counselling, and help for kids, adolescents and young adults with FASD. Or you can take a “screw them, I’ve got mine” approach, and then pay down the road for more cops, more prosecutors, more judges, more lawyers, more courtrooms, more substance abuse, more jails, more prison guards, more injuries, more hospitals and more tragedy and collateral damage. 

Sounds like a no-brainer to me, but then perhaps I’m underestimating just how much fun it can be to make public policy on the basis of spite, visceral gut reaction, and resentment. 

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