Teenagers left homeless without support for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder
One teen ends up sleeping under a bridge. Another is passed between temporary care homes. Carers and social workers agree: "There is nothing for these children." Josephine Franks reports.
Jessica* has always been a “full-on, out-there, risk-taker of a child,” her mother Tanya* says.
Sporty, bright, frighteningly good with computers, “everything was done at full speed”.
Jessica, now aged 14, came into Tanya and her husband’s care aged 11 months. During childhood, she was diagnosed with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
Living with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder
Kim Milne and her son David talk about the challenges of living with David's fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. (Video published 2016)
FASD is a brain-based disability that results from exposure to alcohol before birth. Individuals with FASD can experience complex and lifelong physical, behavioural, learning and intellectual problems.
Tanya had been asking for help for six years, but things reached a head when Jessica hit puberty. As her behaviour escalated, with violence, self-harm incidents and suicide attempts, it became clear medication could no longer regulate her, and her parents couldn’t keep her safe.
They agreed Jessica would return to Oranga Tamariki’s care for a year. “It was to try and get some sort of intervention and help,” Tanya said.
What she’s realised since is, “there is nowhere for these children to go”.
Jessica has been in and out of temporary care homes. She spent a stint at a motel, cared for by “trackers” employed like babysitters to watch her 24/7.
Rather than being a solution, this year has seen her at her most unregulated, because of unstable living arrangements with a changing roster of carers, Tanya said.
“She’s had more trauma added to her in the last nine months than in the last 13 years with us.”
She’s now at a kaupapa Māori care facility, where six adults supervise two children night and day. It’s the most stable she’s been - but it’s temporary. The plan was always for her to return home, but Tanya sees no way that can happen safely.
If they sold their house, if they bought somewhere with high fences, if they hid the knives, if they gave up work to be 24/7 carers, if they had strangers living in their home to watch her - she runs through the options but they’re not really options at all.
What they’ve been offered so far is a bolt on the inside of their bedroom door.
It’s not just the immediate future that worries Tanya. Jessica can’t budget and she’s “extremely vulnerable”. She will always need some kind of sheltered housing, Tanya says, but she can’t see any suitable options.
She repeats: “There is just nothing.”
The lack of housing options was a stark reality for Shirley* when her grandson left youth prison at 17.
He needed wraparound support. Instead, he ended up sleeping under a bridge.
Ben* has FASD and an intellectual disability. Like Jessica, his challenging behaviour kicked up a gear with puberty, and he became violent towards Shirley, his carer since he was a baby.
He was also vulnerable, impulsive and desperate to be liked - a dangerous cocktail for exploitation. He was “egged on” by other boys into the offending that landed him in prison, Shirley says.
This is a common theme Aaron Hendry sees in his work as youth housing team leader at social development organisation Lifewise. Young people open to exploitation are only more vulnerable when they’re on the streets. Often young men end up in prison and young women are sexually exploited, he says.
“There’s a huge group living on our streets where interventions could have happened at a much younger age,” he says.
They need to be offered housing with wraparound support, but the options just aren’t there.
When Ben came out of youth prison, “there was basically nothing in place for him”, Shirley says. His violence meant he couldn’t move back in with her.
“When he was homeless, I felt terrible sitting down to my meals. There was always the thought – what has he got to eat?”
Shirley ended up buying him a flat, but after he was the victim of a violent home invasion, he moved into emergency accommodation and then social housing.
He’s experienced too much freedom to now move into supported living, but that’s what Shirley sees as the best option.
“He can come across quite capable and articulate but he has no sense of money,” she says.
He owes a lot of money and doesn’t understand bills and the responsibilities that come with renting. When he moved out of his last social housing flat it was “basically trashed,” she says.
Zoe Hawke works with young parents at E Tipu e Rea Whānau Services. A lot of them have experience of the justice system or being in care, “and a lot of it is linked to alcohol”.
Awareness about FASD is relatively new, she said, “but we're all realising that it plays such a significant part in the lives and the future of our young people and our young parents, and even their babies”.
Social workers see signs and hear stories that point to FASD, but “getting a diagnosis is incredibly hard to do”.
She’s concerned about how the availability of alcohol perpetuates the cycle. “It's cheap, advertised everywhere and we are really concerned about the impact on our hapū māmā, and on homelessness.”
Housing is a big focus for the service. FASD can mean individuals’ decision-making is impaired with regard to risk-taking and following others, which can mean they’re implicated in criminal activity they don’t understand. That can make it hard for them to get into housing in the first place, or to stay in a rental.
Despite the “massive need” for supported housing, it’s hard to come by, often leaving young parents raising babies in emergency accommodation.
“We need that wraparound service because alcohol has already damaged so many of our whānau,” Hawke says.
“We can’t just dump them in a house and expect them to get on with their lives.”
*Names changed to protect identities.