One phone call can change your life

At age six, Jessica was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome


Barbara WebbTERRACE, BC, Mar. 7, 2013/ Troy Media/ – One Wednesday afternoon, Tracy Petley of Terrace, B.C. received a phone call from her sister, begging her to pick up her daughter. By Friday morning Tracy was standing in an Ontario courtroom claiming responsibility for her 18-month-old niece, Jessica, whom she never met before.

Her sister’s landlord let Tracy into her Kingston, Ontario apartment to pick up Jessica’s belongings. The words, ‘Never return the child to her mother,’ rang through Tracy’s mind as she looked around the dilapidated apartment – a warning from Ontario Child Protective Services. Tracy’s sister was an alcoholic, a drug addict and made a living as a stripper.

There were mouldy bottles in Jessica’s crib, everything was soaked in cat urine and dirty diapers were everywhere. Tracy left everything where it was and went across the hall to pick up her niece.

Jessica’s hair was matted to her head. She had cigarette burns on the insides of her arms. She couldn’t walk and she had no developed vocabulary. She was still on the bottle – having never eaten any solid foods.

‘I had no idea what I was taking on,’ said Tracy. ‘I thought I was just taking on a child who had been neglected.’

Jessica would bite, hit, scratch, scream and she would never allow Tracy to hold her close – pushing her away, constantly rejecting her. Tracy tried to feed her with a spoon and Jessica would shove it away. ‘But then she would take my hand and carefully guide the spoon into her mouth. It looked like she was checking the temperature first,’ said Tracy. ‘Every time.’

Wearing clothes ‘seemed like torture to Jessica,’ said Tracy, who learned to turn them inside out so that the seams would not rub against her skin. Jessica would never sleep through the night. Tracy and her husband Ken’s attempts to soothe her were met with kicking and screaming. She would kick her blankets off if they tried to cover her, then she would cover herself in what seemed to be, a spiteful act.

And all along there was no reflection of affection in her eyes or in her gestures.

Compared to their own two children, Jessica ‘didn’t have anything to give back,’ said Tracy. ‘You gave her your safety, your love, you clothed her, you fed her, you did everything and you got nothing back. . . . No matter what we did nothing seemed to get better.’

Six weeks later, at midnight, Tracy and Ken talked, with Jessica’s fate hanging in the balance. Their family bond was over-stressed; their own children were being hurt by Jessica’s violent outbursts. Both Tracy and Ken were sleep-deprived. Financially, they were not prepared to raise another child who was not theirs.

Jessica had been diagnosed with developmental delay, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD, and attachment disorder. Tracy believed Jessica was misdiagnosed; there had to be something more. In those dark hours, Tracy and Ken committed to finding out, which meant keeping her in their care.

In the few years that followed, every day presented a challenge. Miscommunications with the doctor slowed the process of finding a diagnosis. ‘They would never listen to me when I tried to explain Jessica’s strange behaviour. All they got out of it was that her speech was slow.’ So she was referred to a speech pathologist, an occupational therapist and was entered into daycare where she was often suspended for her behaviour.

Because of their children’s different ages and Jessica’s special needs, Tracy and Ken paid three different daycare facilities to care for the children while they worked. Every cent that Tracy earned for over three years went to daycare costs. Tracy and her husband were forced into bankruptcy.

‘We don’t blame, Jessica,’ said Tracy, but by the time Jessica was four years old, they lost their home, vehicles and most of their furniture. There was still no new diagnosis, but Tracy continued her efforts to find sensible answers, which, at times, were costly.

Jessica still never slept through the night. She had no self-sustaining habits. In addition, her safety was always at risk, with no ‘stranger danger’ filters. Even Tracy’s children were on constant guard, both protecting Jessica and themselves. Most importantly, Jessica still refused any act of affection.

That same year, the Petleys were notified that Jessica’s mother died in a house fire. So, while they were still recovering their finances, Tracy and Ken managed to adopt Jessica. ‘We wanted to be sure that she knew she had a mom and dad,’ said Tracy.

Caregivers are born of many different circumstances. When Jessica became Tracy and Ken’s daughter, the dynamic changed, but the fact that they were constantly on guard is key. Learning ways to keep Jessica safe and fed and adjusting to her many behavioural anomalies placed them in that role – all the while, receiving nothing in return.

Finally, at age six, Jessica was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, FAS, a condition that affects one psychologically and physically and requires a lifetime of very structured care. Once diagnosed, however, the challenges never stopped and the love that Tracy wanted the most, never happened . . . not until Jessica was eight years old.

The Petley’s were provided with a qualified respite foster family, who cared for Jessica on a bi-weekly basis. One evening the phone rang and it was Jessica. ‘She missed us,’ said Tracy. ‘It was such a minor thing, but it felt like a miracle to us.’

Jessica’s favourite place to watch TV became her daddy’s lap and, while she would never hold hands, she would hold a finger. When she was 10-years-old she was involved in 4-H group activities. She gave a touching speech on FAS and credited her parents with her own progress – a gesture of love that Tracy and Ken hold dear to this day.

Jessica is 24 now and lives in Calgary, Alberta, with a network of friends who support her. She lives with a friend who has a daughter that Jessica helps to look after. ‘When she has a responsibility, she works very well at it, said Tracy. ‘She’s very good with children.’

Troy Media columnist Barbara Webb has over 15 years of life experience in a caregiver role. Are you a caregiver? Barbara would like to hear your story. Contact her at

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