Michael Maloney is living with the legacy of a drinking birth mother, but love and support of family and friends ae helping him find his way
Michael Maloney and his mom Laura. Diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, he understands there are challenges ahead. Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram
Michael Maloney's greeting to a person he's never met is not the norm for a 14-year-old.
Just barely giving me time to take off my shoes, Michael links his arm into mine and guides me into the kitchen where his mother Laura is washing dishes at the sink.
Michael becomes excited when he sees me glancing towards a picture on the fridge door of his father Gerard holding a large codfish.
"Put that in the paper. Put that in the paper," Michael laughs, wrapping both arms around my neck.
Michael continues to show affection, smiling broadly while patting my shoulders.
Had Michael's birth mother not drank alcohol during her pregnancy, he might be outdoors on this beautiful fall Saturday afternoon skateboarding down a neighbour's steep driveway with his brother Paul and the handful of other young boys in Sweet Bay, Bonavista Bay.
Michael hates bugs. He also dislikes the wind. And routine is very important.
Inside the safety of his home, the unexpected is less likely to happen.
"If anything fools up his schedule, he's off for the whole day," his mother says, sitting next to Michael on the living room chesterfield.
Michael spent much of the first nine months of his life in care - until Laura and Gerard got the call that a baby was ready to be adopted.
"It was the best Christmas present we ever got," Laura says of welcoming their baby into their home.
Michael was tiny for his age; a very quiet child.
"I didn't think he was developed the way he should be for his age. But, everyone told me I was overprotective with my first child," she says.
When Michael was a year old, Laura gave birth to a baby boy.
An outgoing baby and active toddler, Paul was far different than his brother.
Michael's pre-school check-up indicated that he was behind other four-year-olds. His parents were told he'd need extra help in school.
"We knew he had problems but we couldn't understand why," Laura says.
While in Grade 2, Michael was diagnosed by specialists at the Janeway with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). His parents were also told he also had some autistic characteristics as well as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Hundreds each year
Health Canada estimates that nine babies in every 1,000 (more than 3,000 a year) are born with FASD.
The disorder is incurable, but it is preventable.
Babies born of women who do not drink alcohol between conception and delivery are not affected with the brain disorder.
The Canadian Pediatric Society says individuals with the FASD have poor organizational skills, make unhealthy choices in life and are unable to foresee the consequences of their actions.
They are also impulsive and excessively friendly.
Michael is in Grade 9 at Heritage Collegiate in Lethbridge.
Through the years he's been getting help in school from special needs teachers and students assistants.
"They're all angels in heaven," Laura says.
Thirteen-year-old Paul is in Grade 8 at Heritage Collegiate.
"Michael needs extra care because of his disability and Paul does his best to help him in school. He doesn't let anyone pick on him. He takes his money and makes sure he gets his lunches," Laura says.
Michael tries to sit quietly and listen as his mother talks.
His reward for doing so is that he's been told he can answer a few questions about himself, if he'd like.
He can't wait.
"My mom works at Wal Mart. She works very hard. My dad hunts for rabbits. He used to work at the mink plant. Oh, those cute little minks," Michael says, smiling at the ceiling.
"My brother is a newspaper man. He has his own room, which is good for me," he continues.
Michael's biological mother made an unselfish decision to place her son for adoption when she couldn't care for him herself.
Michael knows what the word adopted means.
"When you're born your parents put you in adoption. Then, more parents come in and they pick you up and they take you home," he says, planting a quick kiss on his mother's cheek.
When Laura asks Michael if he'd like to explain what fetal alcohol syndrome is, Michael nods.
"Before I came out, she drank too much alcohol and I got this alcohol syndrome."
Michael says that's why he acts "a little crazy" sometimes.
However, like all teenagers, Michael has his dreams for the future.
He's looking forward to getting his licence and one day moving into his own apartment.
Call for help
Michael may never learn to drive or live independently; nor are his parents yet able to look that far down the road.
"The message I'd like to get out there now is that government and the department of education need to put more funds into helping children with disabilities. They need a lot more help than other children and they should get it," Laura says.
Michael tries to remain patient when his mother begins speaking again.
Moments later, he's disappointed when told the interview is finished.
"I had some other things I wanted to say," Michael frowns.
When told to go ahead and talk, Michael's words hint that while he'll battle a life-long disability, he'll also earn many smiles with his chatty, charming personality.
"Stephen Harper, you know, our prime minister? Is he going to raise taxes? And how about the oil and gas? What's going to happen there? And is he going to take away our good doctors? Anyway, he's a good guy. So, God Bless him," Michael smiles.
Laura is also smiling as Michael explains that "there is more to life than work."
He's also interested in things spotted in the sky but is adamant there are no such things as UFOs.
Laura is proud that, with the support of family, friends, teachers and the community, her son has found his voice and his place in society.
"Someone asked me once: 'If you knew Michael had it (FASD) before you took him, would you still have adopted him?'"
The answer to that question is a definite yes.
"When Gerard picked him up in his arms that day, he was just this little tiny thing. The lady said, 'I'll leave you now and you can decide if you're going to take him.' Gerard said, 'Get his suitcase. We're going home.'"
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St. John's Housing and Homeless Network is holding a FASD conference on October 23-24. The conference is aimed at health professionals, child youth and family services workers, police officers, judges, birth, adoptive and foster parents of children with FASD as well as anyone else interested in learning more about the disorder. The conference takes place at St. James United Church on Elizabeth Avenue in St. John's. For further information call Dave Murphy at 709 691 7570 or email email@example.com.