Did not Take on This Job of Parent in Order to Raise Criminals

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
Monty Nelson and Marguerite Trussler (eds.)Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in Adults: Ethical and Legal PerspectivesInternational Library of Ethics, Law, and the New Medicine6310.1007/978-3-319-20866-4_18

I Did not Take on This Job of Parent in Order to Raise Criminals

Dianne O’Connor 

Scotia, New York, USA



Dianne O’Connor

I did not take on this job of parent in order to raise criminals. Looking at my adult children now, you would not be able to tell me which one became a drug addict, or a thief, or an abusive person, or someone who would never be able to care for their own children. You would see handsome, beautiful adults with broad smiles and life dancing in their eyes.

Little did I know when I became a foster and adoptive parent to children born impaired by prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol that my family would be under tremendous stress: that we would be living paycheque to paycheque, surrounded by case workers, protective workers, therapists, behaviorists, police officers, crisis teams, and psychiatrists in order to get my children to where they are today.

When I started married life with my husband Mickey over 39 years ago, I believed that we could do some good for the abused and unwanted children in our community. We both thought just a little love; a hot meal and all would be good. When, in 1981 we began fostering a five-year old boy, we believed that if we could get the children before they reached 5 years of age, we could make a difference. Now we know we need to get to the moms before they get pregnant to tell them not to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or use illegal drugs before conception since all six of my adoptive children have varying degrees of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders or FASD. Within my family of nine children, six have FASD. All have been involved with the law for various reasons. One daughter, who joined the Marine Corps, was thrown in the brig for using and selling a control substance. She is now homeless, an alcoholic, in and out of drug courts and addiction centers, and is currently awaiting sentencing for criminal mischief. She just finished her probation for car theft. One son, at the age of 13, violently and defiantly confronted a police officer when he was accused of stealing cell phones. Although scared, at age 19, he continues to have swagger when it comes to talking to the police. Another daughter was arrested when her involvement with her birth family turned violent. Her disabilities prevent her from parenting her two children. The children are living with us and we deal with family court regularly. Another son started stealing from us at age seven and turned to stealing the medicine out of a locked box in our cupboard to sell to friends. Today, he breaks into houses to steal because he does not want to get a job or fears he will fail at a job. He is currently lives out of a car with his girlfriend and other  family members. And one daughter was involved with Child Protective Services over her poor choices in parenting, living situation and domestic abuse. We raised her son for nearly 2 years.

This road has been frustrating and exhausting. I have spent over $21,500 in lawyer fees just in the last few years with issues of custody for our two grandchildren. While our friends and family talk about retirement, we talk about 15-month well care checkups and the latest fiasco with the police. There is no end in sight for us. My husband, now 64 years old, believes he will have to work until he is 75 just to make ends meet for us and our growing family and to save enough for retirement.

We are parenting children who did not respond to “normal” parenting approaches. We needed to provide a level of intervention that required a one-on-one intervention, 24 h a day, seven days a week. One mom describes her son as, “a good kid with a good heart, but it takes so much energy for our children to make the right decisions and some days they just don’t have it. He wants to do the right thing, but makes mistakes.” Our children tend to make the kind of mistakes that can be life threatening or can get them in great trouble. Exhaustion, isolation, and constantly running interference to prevent our children from risky or inappropriate behaviors became the world we lived in. School became a respite for us from the consistent level of supervision- at least until the telephone or cellphone call communicating that one of the children is suspended or expelled from school, is being held at the police station or jail, or is on their way to the psychiatric hospital. We, the caregivers, then receive the brunt of their emotionally charged behaviors once they come home and are able to “let go”. I felt deeply that each call reminded me of my failure and I would spend what little time I had asking myself what I could have done differently or better.

To add to my feelings of guilt, outsiders typically consider me a bad parent when my children are in trouble. A birth mother from Australia articulates the shame and blame she feels whenever her son gets in trouble with the law. She states, “I have never been able to deny it. I feel I am responsible for my son’s disability and for his daily struggles. The fact is he is now in prison because he developed secondary disabilities caused by FASD. Every time he looks in the mirror, he sees a poor tortured soul.” The embarrassment and shame that comes along with being a parent of a child who has involvement with the various legal systems can be unbearable and financial draining.

When my children were in elementary school, someone suggested I read the book “The Broken Cord” by Michael Dorris (1989) and my life changed. I was reading about Dorris’s son, Adam, and thinking, this is my daughter or son. Why didn’t someone tell me about alcohol-exposed pregnancies before now? Dorris describes his adoptive son as being in a fog most of the time; as living slightly out of focus. This explanation was very insightful for me when dealing with my own alcohol-affected children.

Now I recommend this book to anyone thinking of adopting a child with FASD. Although the book is very negative, since Dorris’s son is struck by a car and killed when walking home from work one day after many years of struggle, I think prospective parents need to start with the worst-case scenario. Parents and other caregivers can then move on to what the research and years of experience has to offer new parents. We have been there and done that. We have made all the mistakes in parenting these children. One of the most enduring qualities of an individual with FASD is that they probably will not remember the bad things, so every day we get a “do over” to get it right.

The Center for Disease Control longitudinal study of secondary disabilities associated with those prenatally exposed to alcohol conducted by Ann Streissguth et al. (1996) should be required reading for parents and caregivers of individuals with FASD. In her book, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, A Guide for Families and Communities, Streissguth described the challenges faced by 415 persons with FASD who were studied by her and her colleagues at the University of Washington. She reported that over 60 % had some involvement with the law, and 40 % of those were incarcerated at some point in their lives. Other statistics included about 50 % of those studied over the age of 12 showed inappropriate sexual behaviors, over 60 % of those over the age of 12 had been expelled from school, or dropped out and almost a third of the 415 individuals abused alcohol and/or drugs. In all, 94 % of those studied showed some form of mental health issues.

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Feb 18, 2017 | Posted by in PSYCHOLOGY | Comments Off on Did not Take on This Job of Parent in Order to Raise Criminals
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