I met Judy Gilligan, the author of this heartbreaking memoir, through a mutual friend. We met in Allenspark, Co., many miles literally and figuratively from the story Judy wrote about her adopted daughter, Sandy, which began in the university town of Davis, Calif.
Learning that Judy had written a memoir was not the point of our meeting but it became something I wanted to explore.
I'm very glad I did because her memoir offered me a glimpse into my own family of origin. I found myself wondering if my youngest brother, Matt, might also have suffered brain damage due to my mother's drinking when she was pregnant. I will never know because the only people who could answer that question are long since deceased.
But the social/medical problem remains. Young women still drink alcohol while they are pregnant.
"To women of childbearing age: If there is a chance you are pregnant, please don't drink," writes Judy. "There is no safe amount and no safe time....I offer Sandy's story that others may be spared her fate."
Sandy came to the home of Judy and her husband and their birth children, Sam and Molly, in 1987. Sandy came to them through the Yolo County foster care system when she was 2 years old.
It used to be thought that if a child was an FAS baby, he or she would have facial characteristics that indicated as much. But neither my brother nor Sandy gave such early clues.
Judy was convinced that love and a stable home would help Sandy in every area of her life: her speech would improve, her outrageous tantrums would cease, her behavior would calm. Judy, a teacher, was patient with and loving to this most difficult of children. Sandy had no idea that she had been placed in a wonderful family that yearned to do everything for her. So many foster children, even those without special needs, fail to find the right family.
"We felt we had everything we needed and some to share," Judy wrote. Sandy found the best home possible.
Still, it wasn't enough. Sandy didn't suffer solely from emotional problems and neglect, she was brain-damaged. No amount of love, tutoring, family support or gentle discipline could change that although it certainly made the best of a bad situation... for 18 years.
Sandy improved enormously during that time -- showing love and affection to her family, learning to speak in full sentences, attending school -- but she was still a handful, throwing wild tantrums and hurting herself.
In the early 1990s, the family moved to Boulder. It was a fresh start, but not for Sandy.
As she grew older her behavior became more and more violent. At one point (and not the end point) Judy and her husband said Sandy, 16, had run away from treatment nine times, had been jailed twice, and had been held at a total of seven different hospitals. They had a hard time keeping all her non-stop disasters straight, but they still didn't give up although it was clear that Sandy was a danger to herself and others and could not live at home.
One social worker told them that 85 percent of the foster kids she sees suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. "I wish they would tell foster parents what they are getting into," she said. "Prenatal alcohol exposure is worse than coke, meth, heroin, all the drugs put together. They didn't tell you that, did they?"
The social worker asked Judy if she regretted raising Sandy.
"No," Judy said slowly. "We survived. In some ways it brought us closer. And our birth children acquired a kind of special understanding."
When Sandy turned 18 her housing/living options suddenly became much more limited.
"It was obvious that no one had any idea how to stop her free-fall," wrote Judy.
For the next two years Sandy lived on the streets of Denver, a homeless drug addict. She was in and out of jail. Judy was firm with the daughter she loved. Sandy could not live at home and do drugs; Sandy chose life on the streets.
Finally, she was taken to jail, again, for petty theft or violation of probation. There, she screamed in her cell for hours. Suddenly, she was quiet. When guards went to check on her she had strangled herself with three socks knotted together. She lingered for days in the hospital but never regained consciousness.
Sandy died in 2005 at St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver. She was 20.
"I wrote this because I had to," said Judy. "I needed to tell the story--to process it and set it down so that some good might come of it," she added.
(First published in 2013, on-line copies are available through Amazon. This is an important book: All libraries should have copies to help educate and inform women, the medical profession, mental health providers and social workers in foster care systems.)
-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at firstname.lastname@example.org
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