Guest Commentary

Senator David Richards

All Life Is Sacred

(Editor’s note: Senator David Richards in debate last Tuesday recounted the troubles of working families in his home province, New Brunswick. Richards was speaking in debate on Bill S-253 An Act Respecting A National Framework For Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Following is a partial transcription of his remarks)

I grew up in an area where, years ago, 15-year-old boys carried wood on their backs to the yard in the fall and skipped school to work in the holds of ships for $1 an hour and, coming from very little, made decent lives for themselves, never took a penny that was not theirs or committed a crime, and so I believe in self?determination and integrity as much as anyone in this chamber.

However, there are those so damaged in the womb, they come to the world with very little hope of integrity or knowledge of self.

My sister-in-law fostered children with fetal alcohol syndrome for many years. She did so because of an obligation, having had a foster brother with fetal alcohol syndrome and no longer knowing where he is or, in fact, what jail he might be in. He is in his late 40s and she is not really sure if he is still alive. He asked her the last time she saw him if she knew why he was in jail because he did not himself know or remember.

You might recognize fetal alcohol children; their features are ever so slightly altered. Many times they have a flat surface where the nose ridge should be. Oftentimes they cannot stand noise, and worse, as children, many cannot stand another’s physical touch, so a bond with someone like her foster brother to my sister-in-law was almost impossible.

Sometimes anything at all will unsettle a fetal alcohol child and she or he will begin to scream and be unable to stop. Therefore, from the time of birth, they are in their own world and no one else’s. But they are also susceptible to suggestion because so often they have a need and a desperate wish to belong to others. They turn up anywhere someone may care for them and do things in the hope that they too may be liked or loved.

They are also blamed by the parents who cannot handle who they are or what they, the mother and father, through their own addiction to alcohol, have created when the fetal alcohol child begins to create mayhem in the house. “If it were not for you, I would not be drinking. You are the one who caused all of this.” So many of them have heard this as children from the time that they were six years old. In the world that they were in, they begin — and parents often allow this and welcome it — to drink and do drugs themselves. I have seen six-year-old boys drugged and drunk, and by eight the parents have fled, and they too are in foster care.

They are sent to foster homes, and, as in the case of my sister?in-law’s brother, finally no foster home can hold them and they end up on the street or in jail, sometimes for acts they cannot remember having done. My sister-in-law is afraid she will get a call to tell her that her brother is dead, and the love she has had for him and the sacrifices she made for other children, both White and First Nations — that in fact she has given much of her life to — will not have mattered.

In fact, it is a brutal scenario no social worker is really equipped to handle and certainly one that no judge or police officer can mitigate fully — not that they do not wish to, not that they have not tried.

“Why did you do such-and-such?” my sister, a judge in New Brunswick, has often asked young men and women with fetal alcohol syndrome, hardly older than boys and girls. There is no answer except one of the most prevalent ones: Someone put it into their head to do so, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Like the burning of houses along our street. Four houses were set alight by a First Nations boy with fetal alcohol syndrome. It could easily have been a White boy. People escaped with their lives, but the pets were lost, and one man rushed back in, desperately trying to find his three cats. The young fellow had picked that side of the street. He could have picked ours. And later, when they asked him why, he said he didn’t really know.

Someone said to me that this proves that they shouldn’t be born. But to me, it proves something else. It proves that all life is sacred, and through our own folly and missteps, we have lost our responsibility toward them, or their parents have, and all of us must begin to recognize this.

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