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Seminar to raise awareness, give hope to families facing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

When Laura Seton and her husband started encountering behavioral issues with their adopted boys they sought out specialist after specialist in Israel to find a proper diagnosis and support for their specific needs.

Until this summer when they got a diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, they had only a series of wrong determinations and no answers on how to help their sons, who are biological brothers. With little treatment available here, the Setons traveled to Chicago in the fall to learn about treatment options there. At that time they became aware of Dr. Ira Chasnoff, a Chicago-based world-renowned researcher in the field of FASD.

The diagnosis and subsequent treatment has changed life for the Setons who were spinning their wheels by only considering developmental and behavioral approaches to dealing with their sons’ challenges.

“My reaction used to be, he’s just being nasty, but that is not the case: It is literally an inability for two parts of his brain to communicate with each other,” Seton explained. “The part that says, ‘you may not hurt someone’ doesn’t speak with the part that is acting out.”

And now thanks to their discovery and this new connection, Chasnoff will be leading a seminar in Israel next week to educate and bring awareness of the issue of FASD— an under-diagnosed and misunderstood challenge that can be common in adopted or fostered children. Israelis from both Messianic and non-Messianic backgrounds have seamlessly worked together to put this seminar together in a short time. 

HaTikva Families, which is financially sponsoring the seminar, is working with Sharona Duchne who runs a wide-reaching online portal, Adoptive Wisdom, for any Israeli parents grappling with the challenges of adoption. 

Rebecca Rikhi, manager of HaTikva Families, of the Messianic organization HaTikva Project, said the goals of the seminar match the department’s own mission of recruiting, equipping, and then supporting families who adopt or foster children in Israel.

“I did months of research before we launched HaTikva Families and what I saw is that post-adoption support just does not exist,” Rikhi said. “And these children have experienced immense trauma. FASD is something you don’t know before and then all of a sudden your child has behavioral issues and you don’t know how to deal with it. You go to the professionals and they say, oh its ADHD. But you have to approach FASD differently. It is so important that people are aware of that.” 

“We have to give them strategies to deal with this challenging behavior,” she said.

Attendees will run the gamut of Israeli society from pediatric medical professionals and social workers to parents. Chasnoff will be teaching on what happens to a fetus whose mother drinks alcohol and how it affects brain development and the child’s behavior and cognitive abilities. He will advise on how to diagnose and treat FASD.

FASD is the package of conditions that can arise in a child if a mother had been drinking alcohol during pregnancy. The effects can range from physical and neurological problems to serious birth defects. Symptoms may look similar to traits of ADHD or autism, but are not treated the same. Chasnoff emphasizes that FASD cannot be considered in isolation as many children likely suffered other traumas and neglect before adoption. 

Duchne, a self made expert in the issue of adoption and its unforeseen challenges, is herself an adoptive parent. She found that the country’s professionals lack expertise regarding children who suffered trauma and neglect. 

“The FASD children have this too, but more extreme; their brain is underdeveloped,” she noted. “But if you don’t know this and you assume this child can do this and that, you will be frustrated. Only when you understand that his brain functions a different way, you can cope. When you understand the issue, you will receive the right toolbox to deal with it.”

And this is why the seminar is so important, she emphasized.

“No one can tell you the number of FASD children in Israel because most of the children haven’t been diagnosed,” Duchne said. “The general assumption is, maybe 300 were diagnosed with FASD from the adoptive community.”

“The problem now is raising awareness that there are many children with FASD that haven’t been diagnosed with it, but instead maybe with autism or ADHD,” she said.

Duchne just celebrated her 12-year “family holiday” as she calls it. Duchne adopted Osher when he was 6 years old. 

“The first two weeks were sweet like honey, then it got sweet and sour, then it got sour,” she recalled. 

While her son doesn’t have FASD she found he had other issues such as post-trauma and an inability to regulate his emotions. Duchne did her own research and found resources, most of which were in English, and started translating into Hebrew. She started blogging and eventually expanded into an online portal for adoptive and foster parents in Israel, providing training and tons of information. Her site is appropriately called Adoptive Wisdom.

Some 16,000 Israelis have been adopted since the founding of the state. Adopted children ages 18 and under number 3,300. Some 360,000 children are considered at risk in Israel and many are living in government institutions.

“The research shows it is better to have children in a family, for their development and livelihood,” Rikhi said. “Israel will say we don’t have a crisis because the kids are not on the streets. We say it is a crisis because they are not in families — it is an orphan and vulnerable children crisis.”

So coming alongside this FASD initiative is a way of supporting the families who have taken children into their homes already and HaTikva Families approaches the issue proactively.

“More and more we are learning you can rewire the brain and you can bring healing even though there was trauma in the past,” Rikhi said. “If you really connect to the heart of the child and understand their loss then you can bring healing.”

The diagnosis has changed life for the Setons. 

“I would say that one of the main things that has helped us and continues to help us is when you look at your child’s behavior, you’re always interpreting it. And if you understand that he can’t help it, that his brain is damaged, you will react differently than if he’s just acting out,” Seton said. “And when your reaction changes, then his reaction changes.”

Though there is currently no cure, only treatment, Seton sees this as a tool God has given her to lean on Him more.

“No one has come up with a cure, but certainly love and nurture are a big help,” she said. “And God is our great healer and He’s the one we need to be attached to.”

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For more information and to register, see this webpage in Hebrew.

Seminar details:
FASD: There is Something we can do!
Sunday, Jan. 6, 8:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
The Anglican School in Jerusalem, 82 Prophets Street
The seminar will be given in English with Hebrew translation

Dr. Ira Chasnoff is a professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago and a leading researcher in the field of child development and the effects of maternal alcohol and drug use on newborns and children. He has written “The Mystery of Risk: Drugs, Alcohol, Pregnancy, and the Vulnerable Child” and produced the documentary, Moment to Moment: Teens Growing Up With FASDs.

N. J. Schiavi

N.J. Schiavi has lived in Israel for over 15 years and is a freelance writer for Kehila News Israel.

https://kehilanews.allisrael.com/person/njschiavi/

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