Malgorzata Klecka is combating women's alcohol abuse during pregnancy to prevent severe brain damage in newborn babies and the subsequent problems families encounter while raising Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) children.
The New Idea
Malgorzata is working toward establishing an institute that will educate society about FAS and its consequences. This institute will reflect her holistic approach of engaging all involved parties in the work of FAS prevention and education. She educates parents and other caregivers, medical personnel, government representatives, and institutions dealing with alcohol problems. She wants to introduce FAS as a new medical term and convince key players dealing with alcohol problems to incorporate the FAS issue into their curricula, trainings, and programs. She is convinced that combining forces with parties who are involved in the problem can help in early prevention and therapy of FAS.
Malgorzata believes that raising awareness about FAS should be followed by supporting those affected by FAS. She is especially focused on the guilt that both foster and biological parents carry when they struggle to parent FAS children. Psychological and social support for affected families, then, is a major emphasis of her work. The problems surrounding FAS are not widely known in Europe; there is a lot of room for expanding Malgorzata's efforts.
The consequences of drinking alcohol during pregnancy were well known in the past, but what we discover today is a significant lack of social awareness about the negative consequences of drinking alcohol during early stages of pregnancy. Alcohol has a dangerous influence on a baby's brain and may result in alcohol prenatal syndrome. The biggest damage takes place in the first trimester of pregnancy when the central nervous system is developing. This time is also a critical period because often women are not yet aware that they are pregnant. The most dangerous aspect of this problem may be "hidden FAS" that develops in later stages of a child's growth.
Children with FAS grow up emotionally and socially different from healthy children. They often have a difficult time participating actively in normal social life and making daily decisions. FAS children also have problems storing and recalling specific information. Cause-and-effect thinking also suffers. As a result, FAS children cannot meet the same expectations (as healthy children) in school, society, or the home. It is a sensitive problem, especially within foster families, where new parents often have various problems with their children and blame themselves for not succeeding in their new roles as parents.
In Poland and most European countries, children with FAS are treated as normal, healthy children, because the problem is not readily recognized. Poland has done little scientific research and consequently has little statistical evidence regarding FAS and the magnitude of the problem. There are only rough assumptions based on the number of alcoholics and marginalized families. The representative of the National Agency for Solving Alcohol Problems confirms that there is a significant lack of public awareness about the problem. Generally, a family does not ask for and does not obtain any special assistance, including help in therapy or support in school.
Of individuals with FAS, 95 percent between 12- and 51-years-of-age have mental health problems, and 55 percent are confined in prison, drug, or alcohol treatment centers or mental institutions, while 60 percent have trouble with the law. More than 50 percent of males and 70 percent of females will have alcohol and drug problems. These statistics demonstrate the severity of the problem and the importance of educating parents about dealing with and preventing FAS children.
To address FAS, Malgorzata is establishing "FAStryga," a counseling system whereby counselors are trained, and then they, in turn, train other groups of people to spread knowledge about FAS and share their experiences. The Institute FAStryga has three main components. First, with the help of the National Agency for Solving Alcohol Problems, scientific institutions, and media campaigns, Malgorzata is increasing social awareness about the negative consequences of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Second, in cooperation with postgraduate schools for social workers, she stresses education, especially among medical personnel, parents–with emphasis on foster parents and academics. Third, she is helping and supporting those families who already recognize FAS problems in their children.
The Institute FAStryga is located in Ledziny, where on September 17, 2001, Malgorzata launched First World Day of FAS in Poland, an event that was broadcast on national television. In that first year of developing her program, Malgorzata conducted workshops for more than 300 parents with FAS children; more than 200 psychologists and court guardians participated in the lectures and came in for consultations. Malgorzata is cooperating with the Institute for Sociology to research the actual scale of the problem in Poland and is publishing leaflets about the syndrome and organizing workshops for court guardians, psychologists, social workers, and teachers. By setting up a FAS information system through the Internet and organizing a national media campaign, her work will reach broader audiences in other Central European countries.
In addition, Malgorzata is conducting workshops for foster parents in the Foster Parents' Association founded by Ashoka Fellow Pawel Urbanowicz.
Malgorzata predicts that every year she will be preparing a group of 10 to 15 counselors. They, in turn will organize chapters and train other psychologists, teachers, and social workers. To spread information about FAS further, she is negotiating with the Ministry of Health about acknowledging the FAS syndrome as a disorder that causes a certain level of disability. This will make it possible for parents to attend therapy and receive special financial support to take care of their children. To facilitate this process, Malgorzata created Forum FAS, a communication platform through which representatives offer their ideas to help process legal issues. After Forum FAS is grounded in Poland, Malgorzata will invite representatives of at least five European countries to discuss FAS. She is convinced that in a few years she will be able to spread the program into other European countries.
Malgorzata worked in a hospital as a nurse prior to getting her professional degree at the university. Several years ago she also volunteered as a custody officer for teenagers and dealt a lot with drug addicts. She organized private detoxification for many of them and managed to go to Reading, England, to learn how the centers for drug addicts operate there. She had dreams of creating a similar center in Poland, but she was too young and inexperienced to carry out such an endeavor on her own. In 1995 Malgorzata became a foster parent to three children, two of them coming from a marginalized environment and classified as "difficult." It was a challenge for Malgorzata to cope with the often bizarre and shocking behavior of her children. She felt deep compassion for them, but helpless at the same time. In 1999 she came across the book The Broken Cord by Michael Dorris, and for the first time read about FAS. It was a complete revelation for her. She recognized symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome with all her foster children. Damage was clearly seen as a result of their mothers' drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Further research led her to different organizations and institutions in Western countries that deal with this problem. Her personal experiences, then, led her to devote her energies full-time to the problems of FAS children and their families.