Saltz Center Champions Toddler with FAS

Laura Sander cries when she recalls how frustrated she was when she was searching for therapeutic services for her adopted son, William, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Laura, a 7th grade teacher who grew up in Argentina and settled in a suburb southeast of Los Angeles, had always dreamed of adopting a child. William was placed with Laura just three days after she was approved to be a foster parent. He was four months old. Like many neglected infants, William didn’t cry. “Infants cry to get attention. But if you cry and nobody comes, eventually you stop crying, and that’s what happened to William,” she says.

“At about two years of age, we finally got the diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome, and we were able to get help through the Saltz Center at the Alliance. Thanks to them, he was able to attend a special early intervention program. He started to learn colors and numbers and dance and sing. He made friends – it was also good for his social life! We went three times a week for an entire year, until he turned three. His therapists did everything that he needed to get him ready for kindergarten so that he can succeed in his education in the future.”

William seemed to be developing normally at first. However, being a teacher, Laura was sensitive to developmental milestones. “His babbling was delayed. He wouldn’t turn. I started pushing for some help. As a mom, I knew, there’s something off.” She was taking William to USC Medical Center, and he was referred for testing at a regional center. “He was falling further and further behind in his speech, and I started to feel desperate,” Laura says. “I felt that, as an educated person, I should be able to find the right help for my son, but I couldn’t. It was very hard to get through all the red tape and figure out who could help me.” One day, her doctor mentioned that a lawyer from the Alliance for Children’s Rights was on hand and might be able to help. “That was a turning point,” says Laura. “The Alliance was a godsend.”

William suffers a disorder in his hip joint that is progressive. Doctors expected that he would be unable to walk or run. But today, William not only walks; he runs, jumps, rides a tricycle, and otherwise keeps Laura on her toes. With help from the Saltz Family Early Intervention Advocacy Center at the Alliance, William received therapeutic services, including occupational therapy. He has seizures that Laura has learned to manage. Because of FAS, he has sensory issues that prevent him from experiencing pain in a normal way. Through occupational therapy, William has learned to express pain even if he doesn’t feel it, so that he can avoid injury. “I’ve learned to deal with these challenges as they come,” says Laura. “We don’t know what his normal is going to be, but I’m going to push him to his full potential.”

Legal advocacy helped maximize the therapies available to William so he could catch up in his development. “Because of the Alliance, we were able to keep a lot of programs from the regional center for several months after he turned three,” says Laura. “We fought for what’s called compensatory time because it had taken so long for me to get help. The Alliance was also able to represent William at his initial IEP with the school district, which gave me more than I ever hoped for. Thanks to the Alliance, Willie is receiving one-on-one services for the entire school day. He has an assistant from the moment he goes to school until he leaves at the end of the day. They follow him and keep him safe. It’s given me a tremendous sense of security when he’s at school.”

“He’s on track to have a normal life, and that’s really exciting,” says Laura.

Two years after William was placed with Laura, she signed the adoption papers. Laura’s mother, who was recovering from cancer at the time, sees William almost daily and helps care for him. “He’s the light in my life,” Laura says. “And he saved my mom. We just love him so much.” Laura says she’ll adopt again someday. “I loved the process, and I love being his mom,” she says. And with help from advocates like the Alliance, Laura knows that the village she needs to help raise a child with special needs is there for her and William every step of the way.

Learn More: The Saltz Family Early Intervention Advocacy Center