Clare Devanney describes her children as glorious, quirky and beautiful. But their lives will forever be impacted by alcohol. Stuart Arnold reports.

THEY are her “three little whirlwinds” and she wouldn’t change them for the world, but mum Clare Devanney’s adopted children all share one thing in common.

They have all been harmed by alcohol when in the womb.

It is estimated that more than one in 100 babies born in the North-East have some form of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a term given for a range of mental and physical disabilities that can be caused when a developing baby in the womb is exposed to alcohol.

Today is International FASD day and Ms Devanney hopes that by speaking out and informing others – particularly mothers-to-be – of the potential impact of drinking during pregnancy some good can come of it. The County Durham mother had no idea when she adopted three siblings from care – a daughter aged ten and two sons aged 11 and 12 – that they all would later be diagnosed with FASD.

“Looking at my children, you would not know physically that they have FASD,” she says.

“Our diagnosis only came last year and our children had already had a difficult life with the dots not being joined up and nobody really understanding why they were behaving the way they were. When we adopted from care, we expected there might be some emotional problems or developmental delays, but FASD is often an invisible disability. You can’t always see it’s there, but you end up faced with some impossible behaviours.”

When a woman drinks alcohol, so does her baby, as the alcohol in her blood passes to the unborn child through the umbilical cord.

The effects can include vision impairment, sleep problems, heart defects, liver problems, a poor immune system and speech and language delays through to memory problems and behavioural problems such as impulsivity, hyperactivity and inappropriate social behaviour.

Ms Devanney, 41, pushed for medical investigations into her three children’s behaviour after it became a problem at school.

“One of the things about children with FASD is that children often act a lot younger than they are, so the chronological age doesn’t match the physical and cognitive age,” she says.

“School can be terrifying for them – primary is easier as it is a smaller environment, but in secondary school they are in a class with children nearly twice their mental age. They can be silly and inappropriate – children with FASD will often end up disengaging with education as they can be clever but can’t sit still enough to finish a piece of work.

“When they’re having an episode it can be angry and aggressive behaviour and they find it difficult to stop. They need to feel safe and secure to be able to calm themselves out of it.

“It’s also very difficult for children with FASD to socialise appropriately. It can mean children not getting invited to parties, or friends’ houses to play. It’s any mother’s worst nightmare and when it was happening to our children we didn’t have a diagnosis. It is heart breaking and soul destroying.”

Susan Taylor, partnerships manager at the North-East alcohol office Balance says children affected by FASD can be seriously disadvantaged throughout childhood and later through life.

“The latest Chief Medical Officer guidance is clear – to keep risks to a minimum, the safest approach is not to drink during pregnancy,” she says.

“People need to be aware of the advice and Clare is passionate in putting that message across. It’s equally important to reassure women that if they have drunk small amounts of alcohol before they knew they were pregnant, the risk of harm to the baby is likely to be low. If a woman is worried about having drunk alcohol during pregnancy they are best advised to talk to their doctor or midwife.”

The question is are women listening to the advice? New research from the Canadian Institute of Mental Health Policy and Research suggests British mums-to-be are among the most likely in the world to drink during pregnancy and four times more children in the UK are suffering from alcohol-related birth defects than the global average.

Meanwhile, Ms Devanney says she believes there are thousands of as yet undiagnosed children who are being written off as being naughty or disruptive because of behavioural problems stemming from FASD. Worse can flow from there with FASD children more likely to begin abusing alcohol and drugs on their way to adulthood, while statistics show they are at greater risk of taking their own lives.

Despite the difficulties, Ms Devanney says she would adopt her children again “in a heartbeat”, albeit with the hope that an earlier diagnosis would mean the trio get the support they need from the outset.

“We’re lucky our schools very much see their role as part of the process of staying engaged with education,” she says.

“Education really is the key. There is lots of conflicting advice out there, but I don’t believe any mother if faced with a list of the physical and mental problems FASD can cause would be willing to take that risk in a nine month period.

“I do sometimes wish I could swap my children’s lives and for their daily life not to be so difficult. I would like people to be able to live a day in their life. I think people would then make a different choice.”