As part of FASD-CAN's tenth anniversary, we interviewed a parent who was looking for answers about her adopted son's behaviour back in the '80s. She eventually found Christine Rogan, one of our earliest pioneers, but there was one even earlier who was a saviour for this mum: Shirley Winnakeri in Hamilton.
This mother's story of a misunderstood little boy will be all-too-familiar for many; we have included it because there's a happy ending and although the journey can be so very hard – it's worth it in the end.
When we adopted our precious son, he was 10 days old, and a tad scrawny. We were told his mother was seriously underweight and smoked incessantly during pregnancy.
Because I had worked as a Medical Social Worker in National Womens’ Hospital in the adoption area I had seen the distress of adult women who had been adopted themselves and had no idea of their birth heritage. I determined to find out as much as possible about our son’s background so that in due course, this information would be shared with him.
What we were told delighted us. We learned both his parents families originated from the same part of the UK as my husband’s forebears. We were told his father was well-educated and his mother was training as a nurse, as indeed had I. We were told his father was athletic and loved mountain climbing.
Health-wise, we were told about his mother being highly stressed in this situation – hence her smoking. We were told our baby’s parents had been engaged to be married, but because his grandmother didn’t like her daughter’s fiancee, the engagement was called off.
Nothing whatsoever was mentioned about alcohol.
We had our miracle daughter who at the time had just turned three. She was a very willing little helper in fetching and carrying and doing what she could to help and love her new baby brother.
As a toddler and pre-schooler James (not his real name) laughed a lot, was a happy little one and we loved him to bits. He brought such joy that we applied to adopt another baby and when James was three, Andrew came along.
But once James started school he slowly began to change. He was less joyous, he struggled to learn to read and I was offended when a teacher said to me, “I ask the children to tidy up and James stands there moving his hands – he tries to look busy but does nothing.”
As time went by we noticed he would blatantly lie and look us straight in the face without blushing. He would lie even when telling the truth would have had a far more favourable outcome. We couldn’t understand this trait at all – regardless of threats, punishments, whatever, he had great difficulty telling the truth.
By the time he was ten we became aware he was stealing money. We had a wholesale and retail business and after school on late nights he would take the bus to the shop and empty all the rubbish bins and do a few other odd jobs. On one occasion his school teacher phoned and told me the local dairy owner near the school told her a schoolboy had come to the dairy with a $50 note and shouted all his class mates ice-creams and lollies. When she produced a class photo, James was identified as the benefactor!
Of course we asked him where he got the money but he refused to tell us. We guessed he had helped himself to the till. It became apparent he could see no wrong in this. The money was in the till, so why not take it?
About this time James began smoking. In those days customers could buy one cigarette at a time and he legitimately earned pocket money from emptying the rubbish bins at work. By the time he was 12, he regularly stole money – from our wallets and anywhere he could find it. He would shout his mates MacDonalds and this ensured he had a lot of mates.
We learned to keep our wallets locked in the car and our car keys under our pillows at night.
When James was 14, I received a speeding ticket for racing along Greenlane Road at one o’clock in the morning! Somehow he had crept into our bedroom and removed the car keys from under my pillow. This was scary. We didn’t feel our money or car keys were safe anywhere. Then my husband had a code lock put on his study door and on the cupboard where the safe was kept locked.
Regardless of how we tried to remonstrate with him, or talk logic to him, or try and understand why he felt so entitled to stuff that was not his, nothing worked.
I took him to a Counsellor at University because at this stage I was doing a degree in Psychology in an effort to understand the enigma that was our middle child. The Counsellor made James write five letters to assorted friends, telling each one he was a thief and if they wanted to keep their money safe, to stay away from him. Then each letter was put into an envelope, stamped and addressed. He would be given the option of who to send a letter to the next time he stole.
We did our utmost to help him through school; he regularly went to SPELD NZ (a charity for Specific Learning Disabilities) and had private tutoring to help with schoolwork. In desperation we sent him to St Kentigern’s Secondary School, which provided a highly structured environment – and for the first time ever James started to do quite well at school. How we wished we had sent him there from the start. However, two weeks before sitting School Certificate, the Headmaster called me into his office. James was there. The headmaster told me our son had been selling drugs to school mates – he was expelled on the spot.
Whenever we tried to find out why he did these things he didn’t seem to have a clue – it just happened. We were going to Tough Love, a parent support group we found very helpful. For example James was attending nightclubs when we thought he was innocently tucked up in bed. The good folk at Tough Love suggested we take away all his clothes except his school uniform and a neighbour agree to take his clothes. The idea was that he would not rock up at a nightclub in his school uniform!
Following the St Kentigern’s episode, we sent James to two other secondary schools in a last-ditch effort to get him some sort of education – when fortuitously he was offered a mechanical apprenticeship at our local garage. Wonderful – what a blessing! Mechanics was his strong suit and we were all thrilled at this golden opportunity for our son to finally make some headway in life.
However our joy was short-lived. Six weeks a later we had a call from the Warkworth Police Station from an officer who told us our son and a friend of his had presented a gold credit card at a petrol station. The astute worker noticed a whole lot of expensive new dive gear in the back seat of this clapped-out old car and questioned how two teenage boys could be in possession of a gold card...
Life on the rollercoaster
By now my husband was thoroughly fed up. There were many other instances of assorted thieving and my spouse had decided he would not attend the court case. Because our boy has not yet turned 17 he went to the Youth Court and was given a considerable amount of Periodic Detention. On the return from Warkwork I decided to take James to Paraemoremo High Security Prison. I’d never been there before, but taking James with me and ignoring the ‘No Admittance’ signs, we rang the bell at the main front door.
We were ushered to the Superintendent’s office who kindly took us along a corridor with narrow windows, explaining they were too narrow for a person’s head to fit through. Gates came down from the ceiling, shutting us in. He talked with James separately and assigned another officer for me to talk with. I felt grateful for their time and the experience certainly put the brake on James stealing – for a time.
In another effort to help our wayward son, my husband arranged for our head mechanic to arrange an industrial sewing machine apprenticeship for our son. We were well aware this gave our boy access to wide range of stealing possibilities – but what else could we do? If he had a trade, he could at least earn a living. He managed to learn the basics of repairing industrial sewing machines but never completed the course.
By the time James was 20, he was an alcoholic. His life had veered right off-course. He amassed numerous speeding fines, drink-driving tickets and the court cases became a blur.
About this time he met a delightful young woman who had a 7-month old baby and after a while they moved in together. They soon had their own baby and when she was about 11 months old, they moved to a government-run farm in the King Country. James was good at mechanics, and the job was well within his capacity, but it wasn’t long before he began stealing sheep and selling them in the local pub. His city-born wife was left alone, night after night, on the farm. She decided to move out with another man, taking her eldest daughter and leaving an 18-month toddler for James to care for.
At that time were holidaying in UK – so our daughter and son-in-law hired a removal van to gather up James, his daughter and their furniture. When we returned from the UK, father and daughter moved back home with us.
That’s when I really knew something was really wrong with James. I could see how much he loved his little girl, but he was completely incapable of caring for her. He take her off for two or three days without telling me where he was going and he failed to think of taking milk bottles and formula, spare nappies or clothes. This was before mobile phones existed and I was worried sick.
Knowledge is power
It was at that time (circa 2001) that my sister happened to hear FAS advocate Shirley Winnakerei talking about Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, as it was called then, on the radio. As Shirley explained about FAS, my sister suddenly realised that so much of what Shirley described fitted the behaviour of our James. She sent away for an information pack, read it and then posted it on to me.
As soon as I had read the material I phoned Shirley in Hamilton – what a rock she proved to be.
Shirley had herself adopted a FAS baby, but somehow had stumbled upon the reason her daughter behaved as she did, so she set about educating others. She worked out of her garage, gathering information from around the world, especially from Canada, and distributed this to anyone who requested it. She talked on the radio as often as was asked and never hesitated to offer helpful advice – all of this voluntarily.
It was Shirley who told me about a psychologist in Hamilton who diagnosed FAS – we paid $800 and sure enough, James was diagnosed as having FAS.
By this time the mother of their little girl wanted her daughter back and we supported this move as she was a competent parent in a stable relationship. It was very hard on James though.
He moved to Hamilton, got a job in a factory and was happy until the personnel officer checked his police record and noted all his misdemeanours. He was fired instantly.
Following being fired he went into a deep depression. By now he had a mobile phone but he refused to answer it. I drove to Hamilton and found him curled up in the fetal position in a dark room. I bought him food, paid his rent up to date and helped him to find another job.
Following more driving tickets, James came to the realisation that alcohol was causing him a huge number of problems, so he took himself off to the residential Bridge Programme in Mt Eden and for the first time made a real effort to turn his life around. Although he didn’t stop drinking immediately, within a year he had decided not to ever drink alcohol again and has been sober ever since. But still he strongly resisted the notion that his brain had been adversely affected in utero. He did not want to know about FAS and his life lurched on.
James moved to Australia and over the next few years, he found truck-driving work. He really liked this and persuaded us to help him pay to sit tests for big rigs. Then he started working for a series of trucking companies, but although he no longer drank, he had transferred his addiction to drugs – not a good mix with truck driving. After being fired for having drugs in his system, the message finally seemed to hit home and in order to keep himself employed he stopped taking drugs.
Christine Rogan has been appointed to head up FASD-CAN as it became known and I gladly joined, doing my utmost to learn more about FASD. I’d also heard about Vanessa Spiller, an Australian doctor who specialised in FASD research and it really help me realise that the best thing was to help our son was for him to work to his strength (truck driving) and for us to oversee his weakness (finances and money management).
During the COVID-19 outbreak, we brought him back to Auckland and helped set him up in accommodation. By now he was 48 and completely drug and alcohol free (hallelujah!). This meant he could think much more clearly.
A brighter future
James is now 50, and the past two years have been the best years in his adult life. He has a large dog to whom he is devoted and cares for very well. When my husband had serious surgery last year he phoned regularly and did all in his power to be helpful. When we moved house he helped us on all of his days off, doing garden jobs, cleaning gutters, whatever he could to be helpful.
We love him to bits and feel his love for us.
He has met both birth parents and learned from his father that two women became pregnant to him about the same time. No wonder James’ mother was so very distressed. We have since learned she used hot baths and drank vodka in an effort to dispense with her ‘problem’. I sometimes wonder if even while he was in utero, James felt rejected and this was why he rejected the world around him.
We have loved him constantly and although at times were very angry and disappointed with him, we still told him he was loved at a core level. His behaviour wasn’t loved – but he was. We had praying friends too, and knowing this helped our sanity.
So, dear reader: if you are at your wits end, please don’t give up. This is a long and difficult road – but it’s one that’s well worth travelling.