MANKATO — “Did your mother drink alcohol during her pregnancy?”
The question is direct, arresting and, perhaps to some, offensive.
But it’s also a question that longtime educator and Mankato resident Jody Allen Crowe believes is vital to the health of this country.
“We live where the abnormal has become normal,” Crowe said. “And we will not know the full impacts (of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) until we get reliable data on how much mothers drank during their pregnancy.”
Crowe spent much of his career as a school leader and superintendent, mainly on Native American reservations, before he devoted his life to raising awareness about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
He’s researched the topic extensively, has met with experts on the topic from around the country and recently self-published a book — “The Fatal Link” — about his investigation into the connection between school shooters and prenatal exposure to alcohol.
He’s also starting a local chapter of Healthy Brains for Children — a non-profit he created to work with existing agencies to raise awareness and create prevention programs for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. The Mankato chapter, he said, will be sponsored by the Greater Mankato Area United Way and host its first meeting in the next several weeks.
“We want to amplify the message already out there and fill in the gaps where nothing is happening,” said Crowe, who also wants to work with high school and college students to start local school chapters. “This will be a long, sustained effort.”
Alcohol is a teratogen, a substance that causes irreversible malformation of an embryo. In the case of alcohol, the toxic ingredient is ethanol, which attacks the central nervous system of an unborn baby and kills brain cells.
According to research presented by Crowe, a 2001 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children with any prenatal exposure to alcohol were 3.2 times as likely to exhibit delinquent behaviors; a 2007 study of nearly 5,000 mothers and 8,600 children found that behavior problems increased for each additional day a mother drank during the average week.
Crowe’s own research goes a step further by investigating the links between criminal behavior and prenatal exposure to alcohol.
After interviewing inmates of the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd, Crowe found that 94 percent had mothers who drank alcohol.
After interviewing friends, family and acquaintances of the mothers of seven school shooters in Minnesota and Wisconsin since 1966, he found all of them fit the profile of a child who was prenatally exposed to alcohol. He was also able to personally confirm that four of the mothers drank heavily during pregnancy, including Joanne Weise — the mother of Red Lake shooter Jeff Weise — who told Crowe she believed her binge drinking while pregnant played a role in her son’s actions.
“For me to see hope for the future,” said Crowe, reiterating that alcohol-related brain damage is irreversible, “I have to work with prevention.”
With one-fourth of all mothers reporting in a recent Minnesota Department of Health survey that they drank alcohol while pregnant, Crowe said he is worried the effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol go far deeper than anyone imagines.
To combat the problem, Crowe suggests that law enforcement and medical professionals begin keeping data on fetal alcohol exposure and that insurance companies begin incentivizing healthy pregnancies by rewarding mothers who submit to, and pass, alcohol screenings.
“These investments would absolutely pay a return,” Crowe said.
Crowe’s interest in the topic began in 1966, when he was a fifth-grader in Grand Rapids. That was the year when David Black became the first school shooter in this country’s history by fatally wounding Grand Rapids school administrator Forrest Willey.
The event only became more ingrained in Crowe’s memory during his career as an educator.
As a school leader on several reservations in Minnesota and Idaho, Crowe said he witnessed first-hand the debilitating effects of alcohol. Sexual promiscuity, drug use, depression and anger were not just common, but prevalent, at his schools. Crowe has been cursed at, spit on, sucker-punched and has had to wrestle weapons away from students more than once.
But Crowe said he is convinced now more than ever that many of those children had no choice. With brains irreparably damaged from prenatal exposure to alcohol, he said those students serve as a constant reminder that all children deserve a healthy brain.
MANKATO — “Did your mother drink alcohol during her pregnancy?”
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