Former teacher crusades against drinking by pregnant womenHe gave up a career as a school administrator to spread the word about the havoc alcohol wreaks on fetal brains.
He gave up a career as a school administrator to spread the word about the havoc alcohol wreaks on fetal brains.
He created a YouTube video blasting a Coors Light commercial mixing the topics of beer and pregnancy. He wrote a book linking fetal alcohol exposure and school shootings. And he’s called on the alcohol industry to develop a tasteless additive that would interact with pregnancy hormones and make drinks unpalatable.
Jody Allen Crowe, founder of Mankato-based nonprofit Healthy Brains for Children, brings ardor and strong opinions to what he calls “America’s greatest brain drain.” At the invite of a Fargo mom who’s raised foster children with fetal alcohol disorder, he’s in town talking to service clubs and health officials in hopes of starting a local Healthy Brains chapter.
“It’s a painful topic; people don’t want to talk about it,” Crowe says. “But until we start aggressively discussing the issue, it will stay hidden, and it will overwhelm us.”
Crowe became passionate about the issue during almost two decades as a teacher, principal and superintendent on reservations in Minnesota and Idaho.
As a teacher at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School near Cass Lake, Minn., he started noticing a pattern of disruptive traits among some students: impulsivity, poor judgment, depression.
Students broke his glasses, bloodied his nose, sucker-punched and bull-rushed him. A visiting nurse’s presentation on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder was an epiphany.
FASD refers to damage less readily observable than full-blown fetal alcohol syndrome, which Crowe calls the “tip of the iceberg.” And it’s by no means an issue confined to the reservation.
“This is a tragedy that I would say has improved very modestly over the past 30 years,” said Larry Burd, director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Center at the University of North Dakota. “It’s a huge problem.”
According to center figures, about 40 percent of pregnant women consume some alcohol before they realize they are expecting, and as many as 10 percent continue drinking after that. Roughly 1 percent of babies born in North Dakota have FASD, or about 70 cases a year.
Last year, the North Dakota Legislature approved a two-year project to administer alcohol screening to expecting moms at health facilities statewide. The social cost of FASD, Burd says, is staggering.
“We say the boys get locked up,” says Crowe. “The girls get knocked up.”
Crowe spots evidence of prenatal alcohol exposure between the lines of media crime reports, and he gets frustrated reporters aren’t making the connection. He brings up the case of Sergei Carlson, the teen convicted last year of murdering his sister in Fargo. Sergei was adopted from Russia, where, Crowe says, rates of FASD are high among youth put up for adoption.
But it was seeing a fourth-grade picture of Jeff Weise, the 16-year-old Red Lake, Minn., school shooter, that spurred Crowe’s reinvention as author and full-time advocate. In the photo, he spotted facial features that sometimes betray prenatal exposure to alcohol: widely spaced, almond-shaped eyes and a thin upper lip.
For his self-published book, “The Fatal Link,” Crowe set out to profile seven school shooters, including a student who had killed an administrator in Grand Rapids, Minn., when Crowe was a student there in the 1960s. Crowe claims all seven of them fit the profile of young people with FASD, and in four cases, he was able to confirm the boys’ moms drank during their pregnancy.
“I sat across the table from Joanne Weise,” Crowe said in a presentation to the Fargo Kiwanis Club this week. “She told me, ‘My drinking screwed up my son’s brain, didn’t it?’ ”
Carolyn Strnad says it was difficult at times to read Crowe’s book. Over the years, she’s raised several foster children with FASD. Strnad, who has four children of her own, says parenting youngsters with FASD was a major adjustment. She learned to manage rashness and occasional rages.
But she quickly fell for these children’s creativity and free spirits, and she believes they can thrive with the right support. She hopes Crowe’s visit will give momentum to starting a local Healthy Brains chapter: “Jody has a real passion about making life better for kids.”
Alcohol is much more damaging to fetal brain development than meth, crack or any other recreational drug. The effects of prenatal alcohol exposure are sometimes diagnosed as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bi-polar, obsessive compulsive and other disorders. Here are some traits children and adults with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder might display:
- Poor math, reading and writing skills
- Impulsivity, tendency to act rashly without regard for consequences and trouble controlling temper
- Poor abstract thinking and a tendency to interpret statements literally
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Poor control of sexual urges
- Poor intrapersonal skills and empathy
- Trouble understanding personal space and boundaries
Source: Healthy Brains for Children
If you go
- What: Healthy Brains for Children stakeholder meeting
- When: 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday
- Where: Probstfield Center, 2410 14th St. S. in Moorhead.
- Info: Free; no preregistration required. Go to www.healthybrainsforchildren.org.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529