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Crisis Looms for Children

Fitzroy Crossing is facing a “humanitarian crisis” because of the amount of children with brains damaged by alcohol in the womb, community leader June Oscar has said.

The heartbreak of raising foetal alcohol spectrum disorder sufferers has been laid bare in a new documentary, “Tristan”, produced by the Marninwarntikura Women's Resource Centre to raise awareness of the condition.

It was shown in Federal Parliament for the first time last week.

Ms Oscar, who fought for alcohol restrictions to be imposed on Fitzroy Crossing in 2007, said she was horrified when she first heard of FASD.

“It was then and there that I realised my god, there are so many people in my community that are affected by this,” she said.

The first Australian study into the prevalence of the condition - Marulu: The Lililwan Project – has been ongoing in the Fitzroy Valley since 2010, with results expected to be published in medical journals later this year.

Paediatrician Dr James Fitzpatrick has already called for FASD to be recognised as a disability, saying while the effects were lifelong, early diagnosis and intervention gave those like Tristan a better chance in life.

In the film, the 12-year-old – whose mother drank heavily during pregnancy – appears confused as he tries to follow instructions and discusses his troubles with school.

His foster family details his poor concentration and inability to read and write, expressing fears for a “bleak” future that seems likely to include run-ins with the justice system.

Tristan often had to be told nine times to shower or eat his breakfast before it finally sank in, his foster father said.

“If he’s in a situation where a policeman tells him to move on as a 15 or 16 year old and he doesn’t … then he’s going to be seen as wilful,” he said.

Poignantly, Tristan expressed a desire to become a policeman himself when he grows up, but he just wants “to be normal first”.

Tristan’s mother was frank: “I was drinking when I was carrying with him and he got a slow mind,” she said. “He thinks like he’s six years old. I was wrong, drinking … (it) damage his brain.”

Tristan's aunt also cares for two other young children suffering FASD. One said his condition was “very, very bad”: “It’s affected your brain and you don’t know what’s going to happen to you,” he said.

Dr Fitzpatrick said it was an “incredibly complex family with hugely complex needs” and the fact condition was not recognised as a disability further disadvantaged them.

Ms Oscar said the families needed help and a change in attitude towards sufferers was needed: “The person with FASD can’t change.”

The George Institute associate professor Jane Latimer, also involved with the study, said FASD was not unique to Aboriginals but affected children across Australia.

“Aboriginal people in Fitzroy Crossing are leading the way in facing the challenges of FASD by undertaking this project,” she said.

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