An argument that goes back to the womb
By Kotie Geldenhuys
South Africa is not only one of the countries with the highest crime rates in the world, but also with the highest rate of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) globally. But is there a link between FAS and crime?
One case which highlighted the link between criminality and FAS was the murder of Jessica Russell, a nine-year-old girl from British Columbia in Canada in May 2000. Jessica was brutally murdered by 20-year-old David Trott, who had been shifted around the foster care system since the tender age of 12 after his mother, who was a heroin addict and an alcoholic, had died. David had been in conflict with the law from an early age after he became involved in petty crime as a teenager - his crime later escalated to assault and vehicle theft. A few days before Jessica's murder, David was incarcerated and awaiting a psychiatric assessment pending an assault charge against him. As the assessment never arrived, the judge released David who had nowhere to go and no access to appropriate treatment or support. He then came in contact with Jessica Russell whom he brutally assaulted and murdered. In May 2002, during a 96-minute confession, he admitted to the murder and explained that he drove Jessica to a secluded Fraser Valley mountain east of Mission in British Columbia where he sexually assaulted her, broke into a trailer and tied her up. Afterwards he hanged her by looping an electrical cord from an overhead fixture. He told the police that Jessica did not fight, that he did not know how long it took for her to die and that he later set the trailer alight. After this confession, his lawyer, Howard Smith resigned. David Trott's reason for his decision to plead guilty was that he wanted to be in a federal penitentiary, where he could smoke. Mr Smith said he had never seen a sadder story of emotional neglect, abuse and untreated mental disorders. David Trott suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome and several behavioural disorders, including attention deficit disorder. In the months leading up to Jessica's death, he was taking strong anti-psychotic medication. According to Mr Smith, David Trott had the attention span of a gnat (similar to a fly) (Armstrong, 2002). David Trott was sentenced to six months' incarceration (Hanlon, 2017).
The Trott case is one of numerous cases which have been reported throughout the years where the perpetrator was a victim of FAS. Although one can describe the deeds of David Trott and various other offenders, suffering from FAS as brutal, one person who is to blame for the situation in which her child eventually land is the alcoholic mother. This argument can be taken back to the womb.
What is FAS?
Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), which was first identified in the 1970s (Douglas et al, 2012), is a neuro-developmental disability that occurs as a result of foetal exposure to alcohol. These disorders include a wide range of physical, behavioural and learning problems. The most severe type of FASD is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) which is a result of a woman drinking heavily during her pregnancy (Gavin, 2016). The developing brain is particularly vulnerable to alcohol and prenatal exposure to alcohol can lead to a variety of adverse effects on cognition, memory, attention, emotional/behavioural control, social skills, academic abilities and daily living skills. Restricted growth, diminished neurological functioning, characteristic facial features and behavioural challenges are all symptoms of FASD (Currie et al, 2016). FASD can be prevented when a woman avoids alcohol use at the time of conception or during pregnancy.
How big is the problem?
In many countries, including South Africa, alcohol consumption during pregnancy is common. Many women consider drinking as a coping strategy for their socio-economic and socio-political realities (Adebiyi et al, 2019). However, the high prevalence of FASD recorded in South Africa is partially attributed to the historical drinking culture driven by the "dop system", a system where farm workers' wages were paid in part in the form of alcoholic beverages (or "dop") (Hendricks, 2016).