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Family & Relationships General

Damaged Angels

A Mother Discovers the Terrible Cost of Alcohol in Pregnancy

by (author) Bonnie Buxton

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2004
General, Health Care Issues, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2004
    List Price

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An adoptive mother writes the book she wishes had been available -- sympathetic, up-to-date, useful, hopeful and highly readable -- when her family welcomed a little girl not knowing that she struggled with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

When Bonnie and her husband adopted Colette, she was three years old. Big for her age, she had walked alone at eleven months, had excellent verbal skills, a thick mane of curly blonde hair and a sturdy little body. They were thrilled with their gregarious second daughter, a great sister for six-year-old Cleo. But although Colette was bright and delightful, a litany of problems soon presented itself. By the time she hit first grade, her parents were coping with her frequent stealing and lying, and her learning difficulties, which necessitated special education. At the age of fourteen, she discovered drugs and sex; by eighteen, in spite of the love and support provided by her adoptive family, she was a crack addict living on the streets. After seven frustrating years of consulting numerous therapists, a TV item gave Bonnie the answer -- and sent her on a quest for diagnosis and help for her daughter.

In general, our society has little compassion for those thousands of individuals whose damaged brains lead them to crime, homelessness and addiction. Few realize that they behave as they do as the result of brain damage caused by their mothers’ drinking during pregnancy. FASD is Canada’s most common, most expensive, yet most preventable mental disability. FASD can be beaten, but as usual, education is key. This book is a tool that could help the 300,000 Canadians currently affected by FASD, and reduce the number of babies born with FASD in the future.

-- FASD is a new umbrella term that includes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) and Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS).
-- FASD is caused by women drinking alcohol while pregnant.
-- So-called “moderate” drinking can do considerable damage to the fetal brain.
-- Individuals with FASD may seem normal, but their damaged brains can result in learning disabilities, impulsivity, lying, stealing, tantrums, violence and aggression, inability to predict consequences or learn from experience, lack of conscience, and addictions.
-- FASD is the biggest single cause of intellectual impairment in most industrialized countries.
-- Research indicates that a high percentage of homeless people, and at least 25% of juvenile and adult offenders suffer from undiagnosed FASD. More than 50% of individuals with FASD will experience school drop-out, trouble with the law, addiction, and unemployment. More than 90% will experience mental health problems.
-- The general public, not to mention many professionals, know very little about either FASD or the fact that no amount of alcohol in pregnancy has been established as safe for the fetus.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Bonnie Buxton is a journalist who has written articles for numerous Canadian magazines and newspapers. She and her husband, Brian Philcox, are co-founders of FASworld Canada, the Canadian nonprofit organization that works at building awareness around the world. They live in Toronto.

Excerpt: Damaged Angels: A Mother Discovers the Terrible Cost of Alcohol in Pregnancy (by (author) Bonnie Buxton)

Chapter One
Rogue Sunflower
I have read that the oscillation of butterfly wings in Brazil may set off storms in Texas.
—Janette Turner Hospital, The Last Magician

We are all interconnected — our lives profoundly influenced by small events that may have happened years ago, involving people we may never know. Back in April of 1979, a woman addicted to alcohol, whom I have never met, became pregnant with her third child, continued to drink throughout her pregnancy — and whirled my life into an unending orbit of love, grief, despair and hope.

This woman is the reason why, one frosty December afternoon in 1997, my rusting seven-year-old white Chevy station wagon, which should be heading home to Toronto’s Beaches, is drawn instead towards a seedy downtown district. At the shabby Queen-Jarvis intersection, I see five young street guys with squeegees, and slow down for a closer look. The car behind me honks. I peer at the squeegee kids as I drive past. The blond “guy” in the black toque is my eighteen-year-old daughter Colette. I drive around the block. Watching for me, she hops in with the wide, infectious grin that captured my heart when she was three.

That heart-melting grin makes me forget just how much money she has stolen from me to buy drugs, and how many lies she has told me in our years together. I don’t care that she has tried every street drug going, or what she is doing with her body in order to survive. We head happily towards the nearest McDonald’s. She’ll have a hamburger, fries and Coke; I’m overjoyed to have fifteen minutes with my dropout homeless daughter, and listen to her tales of life on the street, sanitized for Mom.

My husband, Brian Philcox, and I have known Colette since she was ten months old. In June 1980 we had adopted our older daughter, Cleo, aged nearly three. She had been in the care of a wonderful foster family, the Newbiggings, and we had stayed in contact with them. Shortly after Cleo came to live with us, Colette was placed with the Newbiggings as a foster child. A chubby baby with big hazel eyes, a cute snub nose and a mop of curly blond hair, Colette had been taken into the care of the Children’s Aid Society at age eight months because of parental neglect. Over the next two and a half years, on visits with the Newbiggings, we enjoyed Colette’s spunky personality, and Cleo loved to play with her.

When Colette was nearly three, the social work agency and the courts decided that her birth parents were unable to become fit parents, and she became available for adoption. Big for her age, she had walked at eleven months, and now had a thick mane of waist-length curls. Despite numerous minor health problems in infancy — skin rashes, a mild heart murmur — she was a bright, energetic tomboy, and her foster mother worried that potential adoptive parents might be looking for a feminine child they could dress up in ruffles and ringlets. Inge, her social worker, who had been Cleo’s worker as well, had a long list of applicants to choose from, and selected a couple with two school-aged sons who wanted to complete their family with a daughter.

On January 13, 1983, Colette’s third birthday, Brian, Cleo and I went for a “goodbye visit,” taking a present. Colette, in red overalls, was sporting an odd hairdo — one side long, one side short. When I asked what had happened to her hair, she grinned impishly, “I cutted it.”

I was sunk.

When we left, she clung to us and sobbed. We hugged her goodbye, saying we’d see her soon, knowing we were lying. As we drove morosely home, Cleo, then five, broke the silence. “Why can’t Colette come and live with us and be my sister?”

Brian and I explained that Cleo had always said she didn’t want a sister or brother, and anyway, Inge had found a wonderful home for her. “But she could come here and I would share my room and my books and my toys,” Cleo persisted.

After Cleo had gone to bed, Brian and I talked about Colette — each of us confessing we had felt a huge pang that she was going out of our lives. Who else would understand a fearless and energetic little girl who preferred trucks to dolls and was crazy about dogs and horses? Besides, she and Cleo had always played so well together. Behind Cleo’s back, the discussion continued for several days.

Brian and I were both in our early forties. We had met while working in advertising in Montreal. He was unlike any other man I’d ever known — constantly cheerful, funny, a wonderful cook and an expert at ironing, sharing my interest in language, books, good food and travel and, most importantly, a guy with a huge heart. Since his early twenties, he had quietly been an international Foster Parent, supporting various families over the years. He wasn’t just Mr. Right — he was my soulmate, my best friend, the person who could send me into howls of laughter at a joke nobody else would find funny, the man whose physical presence never failed to cheer and comfort me, the man I was bound to by Krazy Glue.

But could we cope with a second child? We’d been together thirteen years before our childless serenity had been shattered by Cleo’s two-year-old charm, tantrums, feistiness and irresistible humour. Now, three years later, we had almost paid off the mortgage on our large old house in Toronto’s beautiful Beach area. Brian was a senior executive in marketing communication, and I was a freelance journalist. We certainly weren’t wealthy — but we managed to pay the bills and do lots of travelling. Could we make room in our lives and our hearts for another strong, energetic, curious little girl? Would we always kick ourselves if we didn’t make the move? The answer seemed to be yes.

I took a deep breath and called Inge, the social worker. “Brian and I have been talking about this ever since Colette’s birthday,” I said. “If for some reason the adoption falls through — (oh, God, what am I letting myself in for?) — if this happens, we’d like to adopt Colette.”

Inge reported that Colette’s visit with her prospective parents had been a disaster. Taken to McDonald’s, Colette had walked all over the seats and never stopped moving, much to the couple’s dismay. Inge realized they were all wrong for Colette. “In fact, I’ve always felt she belongs with you and Brian,” she said. “But you’ll be getting me into big trouble. I’ve got twelve couples who have been approved for a little girl, and you and Brian aren’t even in the pipeline.”

Editorial Reviews

“Bonnie Buxton’s book, Damaged Angels: A Mother Discovers the Terrible Cost of Alcohol in Pregnancy, is an invaluable contribution to the literature on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Ms. Buxton deftly weaves the story of her children and many other individuals together with the best opinions for treatment and intervention that are in the literature and being presented in work shops. This is a beautifully balanced story of family hopes and frustrations, and eventual successes and failures. It is a must read for anyone caring for a person with FASD or considering it.”
Sterling K. Clarren, MD, FAAP, Robert A. Aldrich Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Genetics and Development, Department of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, Washington, USA

“Bonnie Buxton has written an extraordinary, lucid and gripping account of parents living with an FASD child from infancy into adulthood. She tells us why a diagnosis has made a difference. A diagnosis results in a paradigm shift in perspective in everyone’s attitude towards the person affected — one from seeing a person who is mean, defiant, lazy and uncooperative to a person with a neurological disability who needs a different and more specialized approach to care, education and treatment. Her analysis of the current state of supports for FASD individuals is a clarion call to the nation.”
Dr. Albert E. (Ab) Chudley is a pediatrician, medical geneticist and clinician researcher with over 25 years of experience in diagnosing, treating and counseling FASD children, adults and their families. He is Head of the Section of Genetics and Metabolism at Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital, Health Sciences Centre and a full professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Child Health and Biochemistry and Medical Genetics at the University of Manitoba

“This brave, relentlessly honest book seizes both the heart and mind from the very first pages. Bonnie Buxton tells a gripping human tale of one family’s struggle for integrity against monumental odds: the irreparable harm to her daughter by a hidden enemy and the willful blindness of parent-blaming ‘experts.’ Both harrowing and hopeful, it champions the lost children who are driving parents crazy through no fault of their own — and challenges the rest of us to reclaim them.” —Rona Maynard, editor of Chatelaine