Last names of the grandparents have been removed to protect the identity of their grandchildren.
When Nina finished raising her six children, at the age of 40, she thought her job as a mother was done. It wasn’t. She would have to raise two more — inheriting her grandchildren from her daughter, whose addiction to alcohol and drugs prevented her from caring for them.
“When I got my granddaughter she was crying all the time,” Nina says. “So I was really frustrated. I was a single parent, so I didn’t know where to turn.”
As Nina held the tiny body of her two-week-old granddaughter for the first time, she sensed something was not quite right. The baby cried all the time and was born prematurely. Although Nina knew that her daughter drank heavily during her pregnancy, she didn’t piece it all together until she stumbled upon a grandparents’ support group.
The Intergenerational FASD Support Group meets weekly at the YWCA on Hastings Street to share their experiences and gain knowledge about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder — a catch-all term describing the health effects on a baby exposed to alcohol in utero. Effects of FASD can include physical, mental, behavioral and learning disabilities, with lifelong implications if the newborns don’t receive special care.
In the YWCA, posters with messages like “No Alcohol is Best When Pregnant” line the walls of the room and toys scattered on the floor signal that children are welcome.
Nina learned about FASD when the coordinator explained the symptoms: low birth weight, relatively small head circumference and small eye openings, among others. Nina recognized some of these traits in both the newborn and her three-year-old grandson — suddenly she recognized that his forgetfulness may have been a sign of neurological damage.
“He looks at me, like, ‘what are you talking about?’,” Nina says. “He wouldn’t comprehend.” Within five minutes of her giving him instructions, he would forget everything. His innocent behaviour — forgetting simple things like how to dress himself — would often made her laugh. One day, for example, he told her he was ready to go to school, despite being in his pajamas.
Sharing their stories
At the group, Nina learns how to parent patiently among other grandparents who share her anxieties. The group read together from photocopied papers that describe strategies such as “alternatives to the word ‘no’” and how to be firm and loving even when tempted to be lenient.
In their support group, the grandparents understand each other’s fears and frustrations. The only male in the group comes for the company — his son has been diagnosed with an attention disorder, not FASD, but the symptoms are similar.
Over a hearty and free lunch, the caregivers swap stories. Some attended residential schools and share their memories with the group. Others open up about their family’s experiences with addiction or abuse. Here they can share their stories without being judged or risk losing the ability to care for their grandchildren.
“That’s what we’re afraid of,” one grandparent says, “losing our kids.”
First Nations children are four to six times more likely than other Canadian kids to come into the care of child welfare agencies.
But the group also talk about the positive qualities of the children. They are proud at how loving they say their grandchildren are — an endearing attribute of many FASD kids. Research also shows that people with the disorder are generally friendly and loyal, and they often have an aptitude for writing, music, arts, reading and computers.
“I tell them, just be like grandma,” Nina says.
The bigger picture
Between 1991 and 2001, Canada saw a 20 per cent increase in the number of children who were living with their grandparents without a biological parent present in the home. More than 17 per cent of these caregiving grandparents were of First Nations descent — despite that First Nations people comprise only 2.8 per cent of the total population.
Despite the growing numbers of Aboriginal grandparents raising children, and the high rate of alcohol abuse in the Downtown Eastside, the Intergenerational FASD Support Group is the only one of its kind.
It is an important resource for some of Canada’s poorest people, among whom single adults have an average income of $6,282 ($14,024, after government subsidies) per year. Fourteen per cent of DTES residents are Aboriginal, while the rest of Vancouver has only a 2 per cent Aboriginal population.
Though they tend to have more dependents in their households, the average income of First Nations grandparent-caregivers is 70 per cent lower than that of non-Aboriginal caregivers.
After lunch, Mary, another grandparent in the group, reads inspirational writing to the others.
“Spend money wisely,” the paper she reads says, “I always have as much as I need.” She scratches her head in confusion and looks around the table at the others.
“I never have enough!” she says. The group laughs at Mary’s’ joke.
Like Nina, Mary took in her grandson when he was a newborn because his parents also struggled with drug and alcohol addictions.
Dealing with FASD in the Downtown Eastside
When her grandson turned 13, Mary was forced to move to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside because she couldn’t afford rent anywhere else. She noticed an immediate change in the young teen when they moved into the area. His peer group were a bad influence.
“All they want to do is party and drink,” she says about her grandson and his friends. “It just slipped away from me. Like, my parenting didn’t work.”
After Mary joined the grandparents group, she discovered that her now-adult grandson likely suffers from FASD as well.
As a child he had been fidgety at school and had trouble listening. A doctor prescribed Ritalin, a drug for Attention Deficit Disorder, but Mary was suspicious at the time and refused to medicate him. Now, as an adult, he refuses to accept that he has a problem, she says. But because Mary recognizes the likely cause of his struggles, she says she is trying to get help for him.
A special connection
All the grandparents in the group agree that they have a special bond with their grandchildren.
“I think you love them twice as much,” Nina says. “You try harder to protect them because of their mother. You’re hoping they’re not going to turn out like that.”
Worried that they would fall into the wrong hands, Nina brought the kids to her workplace, the First United Church, where she has been a receptionist for 17 years. But Nina also has another motive for bringing them into the heart of the Downtown Eastside: she wants them to see the realities of addiction firsthand.
“This is what’s going to happen if you want to do drugs or drink,” she tells them, referring to the homeless and addicted people who sought help at the church. “Be like grandma. Go to work,” she emphasizes. .
Two and a half years ago, the Ministry of Children and Family Development deemed Nina’s daughter, who had abstained from drugs for a year, fit to raise her children. So Nina delivered her two grandkids to their mother in Fort St. James, B.C., a 13-hour drive from Vancouver. It broke her heart to leave them but she says she put on a brave face. Hers was a reality that many caregiver-grandparents face — should the parents recover, the elders may have to relinquish their role.
“You’re going back to your mom, you’re going back to your mother,” Nina explained to the kids. They couldn’t understand why. “’For how long?’,” she says they asked her. “That’s where you’re gonna live,” she recalls replying. Nina says she smiled bravely throughout the exchange and presented them with gifts and toys to keep them happy with their mom.
“It’s so hard on me,” she says. “To this day, my heart is still broken.”
Yet Nina perseveres. Today she applies lessons from the FAS group to her work at the church — mainly that of summoning compassion for others. She visits her grandchildren twice a year and they have occasionally come down to visit her. She says her grandson, now nine, misses her as much as she misses them. “Grandma, I can’t wait till I can live with you again — only three more years,” she says he tells her. In that time, when he turns 12, he can choose where he wants to live.
“’Three years is a long time, baby’,” she replies. “’Three years is such a long time.’”
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Krystle Alarcon is a multimedia journalist who reports on social injustice specific to people of colour, women, and marginalized people. Follow her on Twitter @krystlealarcon.
Farida Hussain is a journalist writing about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how new Canadians are involved in the discussion.