I have been interested in fetal alcohol syndrome for years, partly because I just have a deep care and concern for children. Also because my oldest friend adopted two children with special needs and alcohol effects. I hear often about her struggles for services and attention.
I knew someday I'd be involved in a special project on the topic, so I've been slowly collecting information and contacts.
While my colleague, Tom Robertson, has focused on the Native American and Minnesota angle, I've been diving into the stories about families that adopt white children who were exposed to alcohol before birth.
It's not easy to find families that want to open their homes and their life to a reporter. Doug and Denise Finnell are no exception.
I left a voice mail at their home months ago, and it took about a month for Denise to call me back. She wanted more information about the project and was really hesitant about inviting me into her life. We met for lunch to talk and get to know each other.
She showed up with pictures of her children that she keeps on her desk at work. She talked about each one with motherly love and pride. Sometimes there was hurt and anger mixed in.
Denise decided then that she wanted me to come to their home, and she decided when I would visit. Not just any time of day, but the toughest time, at the end of the day when her boys were coming off their medication.
I arrived at their rural home in Lennox, South Dakota, after supper one day. Matthew, 11, was sitting on the porch with a Bible open on his lap and a notebook and pencil in hand. He was clearly in trouble. I winked at him and went inside.
Anthony, who is 8, and Lucas, 4, gave me the typical stranger stare. I decided to get a true picture of this family, we needed to be outside since it's clearly where they spend most of their time. There's a trampoline, a large swimming pool, a swingset and dozens of other toys scattering the yard.
On the deck is an inflatable wading pool that has rubber snakes in it. Lucas likes to pick up the cobra snake and swing it around -- and splash water everywhere. This annoys Anthony, who's trying to stack three boats and won't give up, regardless of the distractions.
The boys' biological mother drank when she was pregnant. The Finnells are angry at this woman, and they wonder why no one stopped her from drinking when she was pregnant.
Throughout the interview, Matthew was off mostly on his own. Anthony would interrupt with his latest find -- a bug, a rock, a smashed walnut.
Lucas wanted my attention. He was fascinated with the microphone and the fun noise it made when he moved the wind screen back and forth. He wanted to show me everything and bounced from one activity to another.
The boys' biological mother drank when she was pregnant. The Finnells suspect her mother drank too, and that alcohol was her way of coping.
South Dakota puts women in jail if they are caught drinking while pregnant, and that happened to Matthew's biological mother. So she spent part of her pregnancy with Matthew in jail. She raised him for the first two years, and also kept Anthony for a year.
The Finnells were asked to adopt Lucas, and they took him home as a newborn from the hospital.
The boys' biological mom never admitted to drinking, but Doug Finnell says people saw her drinking as much as a gallon of wine a day. The Finnells are angry at this woman for doing what she did, and they wonder why no one stopped her from drinking when she was pregnant.
The consequences are huge. The boys suffer every day from brain damage. There are fits and rages, there are fights and confusion, and then there are hugs. Matthew put it best when he said he just can't turn it off.
Matthew and Lucas have fetal alcohol syndrome. There is a spectrum of FAS disorders. While the severity is different for each child, having full FAS means the child has the facial features used to identify FAS -- small eyes, a thin upper lip, and flat skin in the area between the nose and mouth.
It also means their cognitive skills are limited and will not likely improve. Their abilities remain childlike, and it'll be a challenge for them to live independent lives.
Anthony has alcohol-related disorders, a set of symptoms that are a little milder on the spectrum. The Finnells are still trying to figure out what that means. Anthony has trouble connecting to people. He's quietly determined, but he has problems communicating how he feels.
The family continues to learn about the spectrum of disorders, and how it applies to their children as they watch their boys grow.
No one is sure what the future holds for these boys. They're smart, they can remember their school work. They just can't remember common sense things.
A story that Denise shared is a great example of this. One day, she told Matthew to go upstairs and close the windows, because it was about to rain. She heard a loud banging sound. Matthew was trying to close one particular window, and Denise arrived just in time to catch the air conditioner that was about to fall out of the second-story window.
I stayed at the Finnells about 45 minutes longer than either of us expected. The boys were clearly late in taking their bedtime medicine.
As I was leaving, all three boys were soaking wet. They'd fallen in the wading pool with the snakes. Lucas had been bitten by a cat, and he was crying, with Anthony promising it was nothing he'd done. Denise stood on the steps asking if she could come with me. I waved and drove off.
What struck me most about this family was how lucky these boys were to have a home where there is love, expectation and commitment.
I had to ask the question that had been on my mind throughout my visit -- whether they'd ever thought about giving the boys back.
The Finnells looked at me like I had three horns growing out of my head.
"How could we do that?" they asked. "They're our children."
Children with limitations, frustrations and an uncertain future.
I look forward to introducing you to more families I have met as this series continues.