The keys attached to Susan Smith's belt jingle as she climbs the stairs to the darkened second level of her neat, suburban home in southeast Calgary. As she unlocks a bedroom door, an alarm goes off.
She and her husband, Bill, had the alarm installed after their eldest daughter kept attacking her younger sister.
"There was one day when I was fortunately close enough to catch the back of the coat of the one who was being thrown head first down the stairs," said Susan, whose real name — along with those of other members of her family — is being withheld to protect the identity of the girls.
Locking bedroom doors from the outside is not something Susan and Bill had in mind when they set out to adopt two children five years ago. Their three biological children were grown, and the couple thought they could offer a good home to kids in need.
Susan says the one thing they were very clear about with social workers was that they could not handle children who suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), but that is what they got, and they are now dealing with the consequences, not least of which is violent behaviour.
"We've had a number of attacks on us, but a good portion of them were one child to the other, and it was always the same child to the other," said Susan. "There were many times when blood was drawn because she was so angry."
30% of Alberta children in care have FASD
FASD can be caused when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy and enters the bloodstream of the developing fetus and interferes with development. Those with the disorder suffer varying degrees of permanent brain damage. Typically, they will have lower IQs, poor social skills, memory problems, physical challenges and even violent behaviour.
Susan and Bill Smith knew the statistics about the disorder as they headed into adoption classes and family assessments. They were quickly paired up with two sisters, ages 11 and 10. Within two weeks of meeting the girls, they were living with them as foster parents. The Smiths say they quickly noticed some concerning behaviour but were told things would improve once the girls settled in a permanent home.
"We didn't feel that we had a ton of choice other than to go forward and hope that finalizing an adoption would give them the peace of mind that they would settle in," said Susan.
But the girls did not settle, and the Smiths began to question the medical information provided by Alberta Child and Social Services.
The medical history report for the older girl benignly stated that she "has had yearly medical, optical and dental checkups since coming into care. At this time, she presents as healthy and does not have any diagnosis and is not on any medications."
A year after starting the fostering process, the Smiths adopted both girls. They later found out, through assessments, that their daughters had FASD.
Unable to return girls to social services
Susan says she knew she was in over her head even during the fostering stage — so much so that she tried to give the girls back.
"At one point, I said, 'You have to take at least one of them out of the house,' and the worker said, 'Well I'm not coming to get them.' I said, 'That's OK, I'm willing to drop them off. Where do I take them?'
"We were not adoptive parents yet, we were still fostering to adopt."
Smith said they eventually backed down because they did not want to escalate the situation. They only realized after they had adopted the girls — taking full legal responsibility for them — that the behaviours were not going to get better, she said.
"We're completely transparent so anything the department knows goes in the file and is given to the adoptive parents," said Dale Chudyk, an adoption permanency case worker with Alberta Human Services.
Privacy rules prevent Chudyk from speaking specifically about the Smith case, and there are no numbers available on how many parents try to return adopted children to care.
"In my career, I could probably say one or two that I'm aware of that have happened in my office," said Chudyk.
"It's really hard for us to become aware of that information because, once a family has adopted, you know, maybe there is a legal name change. I may not know if a child is returning back to our care."
Chudyk says the province does offer many kinds of support to adoptive parents to make the transition as smooth as possible.
After-effect can be damaging
The challenges facing people who parent children with FASD are well known, according to Dorothy Badry, an associate professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary who does research on FASD and child welfare.
"There's no question it's a tough road," she said. "It doesn't mean there aren't any rewards or positive things. It just means that there will always be challenges."
Badry points to an Alberta academic paper written on adoptive mothers dealing with similar circumstances as the Smiths. It found they can "experience profound depression, trauma [and] post-traumatic stress disorder."
"They have dealt with situations that they never believed they would deal with — from being victimized by their children to being a forever parent," the paper said.
Still, the biggest challenges FASD poses are borne by those suffering from it.
'I don't have really bad FAS, but even a little is really bad'
The Smiths' youngest daughter, Stephanie, is now 15.
She is, in many ways, a typical teenager. She texts her friends, paints her fingernails black and has some pretty strong opinions — especially when it comes to what she thinks should happen to people who drink when they are pregnant.
"They should be put in jail for 18 years and, like, [obey] strict, strict rules," she says. "It's, like, you're staying in here — no drugs, no alcohol, no nothing. Just necessities. That's it."
Stephanie is also extremely aware of how FASD has impacted her own life. One of her earliest medical assessments listed her IQ as being just 79, although it has increased since she was adopted by the Smiths. She goes to school now and has even written class papers about how her life would be different if she didn't have FASD.
"I'd probably be learning easily," she said. "I probably wouldn't have physical problems. I could probably do, like, sports easily. I could probably not have problems and stuff, making good decisions and stuff. …
"I don't have really bad FAS, but even a little is really bad."
Stephanie's life has also become a little easier since her older sister recently moved in with another family on a custody order. It was a move Susan Smith says was necessary to ensure everyone's safety.
Despite challenges, love abounds
Susan laughs a bit when asked what she would tell prospective parents about adopting a child with FASD.
"To go through the process that we did again, not a chance, because there isn't any end to the ugly, not for the family and not for the children. They need professional help 24 hours a day," she said.
Yet it's obvious the Smiths are caring parents. Their walls are covered with pictures of their adoptive daughters with big smiles on their faces.
Bill Smith is quite clear about how he feels about the two girls.
"Well, we still love them, and we want the best for them, but the one — she can't get the best here. We're not capable of giving her what she needs."
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