Fetal alcohol fight in Crow Wing arms itself with new tool

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE
  • Updated: February 8, 2014 - 6:39 PM

A nonprofit is trying a technology- and incentive-based method to keep pregnant teens and young women sober.


California company SoberLink is donating Breathalyzers, carrying the label “My Baby’s Breath,” that can fit inside a purse or backpack.

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Former Crow Wing County educator Jody Crowe grew tired of seeing fetal alcohol-related behavioral and learning problems in children around the state.

Crowe is now leading efforts to combat it in a new way: putting cellular technology-based Breathalyzers in the hands of pregnant, alcohol-involved teens and giving them incentives to stay booze-free.

He and others in the nonprofit organization he helped found, Healthy Brains for Children, are launching the program with leaders in Crow Wing County.

“I saw so much loss of potential from prenatal exposure to alcohol,” Crowe said. “We have to get to the point of preventing it from happening to the next generation. This is one of the strategies.”

Organizers are still figuring out how to find, approach and enroll pregnant girls and women who would benefit most from Breathalyzer testing. They’re making teens a priority so that referrals might come from teachers, social workers or others who have contact with pregnant teens, and also so their parents can help them participate.

Initially, organizers hoped to get volunteer participants, but county officials are also thinking about ways that the Breathalyzers might be issued as part of child protection proceedings or carry other legal heft.

Crow Wing County Attorney Donald Ryan said he believes that most moms-to-be want to do what’s right for their baby. Organizers hope the Breathalyzers will give them a way to fight peer pressure to drink.

A California company called SoberLink is donating the small, pink Breathalyzers that will fit inside a purse or backpack and carry the label “My Baby’s Breath.” A mom-to-be in the program will get a text reminding her of a scheduled breath test and she’ll have 45 minutes to breathe into the device using a small tube. The device will take a photo of the girl and register her breath’s alcohol content, then send that information to a computer over a cellular network. If alcohol is detected, parents, counselors and others will be notified.

Participants will be able to win incentives, possibly including cellphone minutes, gift cards or other items awarded by the nonprofit group, which will also pay the monthly $150 bills for the monitoring.

“This is so brand new that we will be learning as we go forward,” Crowe said. “But even if one child over the course of the next nine months has benefited from it, we will be absolutely happy with our success.”

Researchers say such incentive programs can help people stop unhealthy behaviors. Yukiko Washio, an associate research scientist at the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia, will help measure the program’s success. She previously worked on studies that used incentives to help people stop smoking.

Crowe said the idea was inspired by a Minnesota woman who used a Waseca County Breathalyzer a decade ago.

Teresa Haberman said she’s grateful that county officials offered her the equipment in her home after she had legal troubles during her pregnancy. She needed help, she said, and the accountability helped her stay sober.

“I think that, for a lot of women, if there’s a hand out when they’re pregnant, that pull for the baby is strong enough,” she said. “It’s the fear of losing the baby because people will find out that I was drinking and pregnant. They think that you should just stop, but … not every woman can.”

Haberman is still sober, she said, and pursuing a degree in counseling.


pam.louwagie@startribune.com 612-673-7102

  • Signs of exposure

    An estimated 8,500 babies are born each year in Minnesota with prenatal alcohol exposure.

    Signs that may indicate the need for a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder assessment include:

    Sleeping and sucking problems as a baby

    Hearing or vision problems

    Difficulty in school, especially in math

    Poor coordination and trouble with fine motor skills

    Sensitivity to light, touch, sound

    Hyperactive behavior

    Difficulty paying attention

    Source: Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

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