Life is Hard for Adults with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Adults with fetal alcohol syndrome face huge challenges

by Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio November 21, 2007 Listen to feature audio

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, she risks giving birth to a child with irreversible brain damage. But the problems associated with fetal alcohol exposure don’t end when those children grow up. There are hundreds of thousands of adults across the country affected by a range of lingering disorders.

Most of those adults have trouble living independently. They often have poor judgment and stunted social skills. Their unpredictable behavior can get them into serious trouble.

Bemidji, Minn. — There are very few places in the country that specialize in residential care for adults with fetal alcohol brain damage. That’s what makes Westbrook farm west of Duluth so unique.

It’s a gorgeous setting — 160 acres of rolling pastures and thick forests near the St. Louis River. The farm is home to eight young men struggling with the lasting effects of prenatal alcohol exposure.


Two brown and white miniature horses nibble hay in the barn. Billy Nelson, 20, gently scratches their ears. Nelson considers the horses his friends — and his therapy.

“This one’s Drummer and that one’s Chance,” says Nelson. “You can take them out in the yard and run with them, and they stay by your side. They’re really nice horses.”

Nelson has lived at Westbrook for about two years, but it was a rough road getting here. His mom was a drinker. He and his twin brother were born in St. Paul three and a half months premature. His brother died just a few weeks after birth.

Nelson was placed in a series of foster homes, treatment centers and psychiatric care facilities. He was into drugs and alcohol, and was prone to violence. Nelson figures if he hadn’t ended up at this farm, he’d probably be in prison.

“I used to be crazy and all that when I first came here, but then I realized what my plan was to do on this earth before I pass on,” says Nelson. “I need to take the punches and say, hey, just get my stuff together so I can move on in life and better myself. Because if you don’t better yourself, you’re not going nowhere.”

Westbrook farm was started five years ago by a Duluth nonprofit organization called Residential Services, Inc. The goal is to teach basic living skills to adults affected by fetal alcohol exposure, and help them live independently.

It’s a population that health advocates say is grossly underserved in this country. Studies show 90 percent have mental health problems, and 80 percent have trouble holding onto a job.


Nelson and the others at Westbrook lack impulse control and have trouble understanding the consequences of their behaviors.

Travis Dombrovski, manager of Westbrook, says that means daily life on the farm is unpredictable and sometimes explosive.

“They break things, and they yell and they scream and they swear, and they’re hyper-sexual,” Dombrovski says. “Assaults, sure, phones being thrown, lots of property destruction. It’s got to be a helpless feeling. It’s got to be scary and it’s got to be hard to understand.”

Dombrovski says Westbrook’s residents have trouble learning from their mistakes, so instead of punishment, they face what he calls “natural consequences.” For example, when someone gets angry and breaks something, they’re required to fix or replace it.

Despite evidence that punishment is ineffective on adults affected by fetal alcohol, some 60 percent of them will spend time behind bars. Dombrovski say society needs to take a different approach.

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