KALAMAZOO, MI — Even though they just had a child of their own, Jessica and Nick Guerriero didn’t hesitate when they took infant Isobel into their life, first as foster parents and later adopting her as their own.
The Guerrieros knew that would come with challenges. But they were unaware just how many at first. Isobel, who turns 4 this September, was born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
“We always knew she had been exposed to drugs and alcohol during pregnancy but we weren’t quite prepared for the extent of which she had been exposed,” her mother Jessica Guerriero said. “She was born addicted to methamphetamine and cocaine.”
Isobel’s diagnosis didn’t come until September 2020. After helping her through withdrawals, seizures, multiple surgeries to correct an airway malformation, uncountable doctor’s appointments and working with an array of therapists to help with the symptoms that go along with her disorder, the family could finally put a label on it, it helped give them a better idea of the path forward, Nick Guerriero said.
“The way her brain functions has been severely and permanently altered,” Jessica Guerriero said. “Isobel will likely need lifelong support. About 80% of children born with FASD do. As they get older impulse issues turn into money issues and often there’s an inability to hold down a job because they can’t control the emotional regulation aspects and they just don’t have the ability.”
Like many children inflicted with the disorder, Isobel struggles with loud noises, bright lights, impulsivity issues, hyperactivity, has difficulty in recalling past experiences and cognitively her brain is not nearly as developed as others her age. At this point, her mother said Isobel is cognitively the equivalent of a 2-year-old.
“She has little to no executive functioning, and doesn’t understand cause and effect, so for her punishment and traditional discipline don’t work,” Jessica Guerriero said. “A time out doesn’t register what she did wrong.”
“She may understand she needs to hold your hand and look both ways when crossing the road one time,” her father added, “but the next time, she will race right out into the road without grabbing your hand or looking.”
Those reasons, and more, are why the family is looking into getting their daughter, affectionately nicknamed “Mitzy,” a service dog.
A service animal can help Isobel complete common tasks and assist with sensory and emotional regulation, coping skills, safety and more, said Jennifer Lutes, associate director with 4 Paws for Ability.
Isobel’s dog would also be trained to apply deep pressure, to assist with redirection/refocusing and through the act of tethering help keep the child safe. If Isobel were to get away, the dog would also be scent trained to Isobel’s natural smell, find her and then lead her to safety.
“Tethering is a really proactive way of handling safety concerns,” Lutes said. “The parent holds onto a primary leash and is able to give the dog commands, while Isobel would have a secondary leash attached to her and the dog’s harness. Tethering, of course, can be a little restrictive, while at home or at a playground, which is why the dog is well-versed in redirection and scent trained.”
The training of Isobel’s dog will take place in Ohio where 4 Paws for Ability is based, but the cost is not cheap, Lutes said. Dogs cost anywhere between $40K and $60K and the training period lasts close to two years. The family is required to raise $17K, she said. The nonprofit, through its own fundraising, covers the rest.
Part of the reason for the high cost, Lutes said, is that the nonprofit will begin every class with two to three times the number of dogs that will graduate and then adopts out the ones who don’t make it. There is also the cost of veterinary bills and supplies.
Each dog is trained specifically for a child’s needs, depending on what those needs are, she said. Isobel’s future dog will likely be trained with other dogs who will be paired with dogs assisting children with similar needs, but until the family raises its required funds, that training can’t begin.
Depending on when the family concludes its funding, the Guerrieros expect to have a dog in either 2023 or 2024. The last nine days of the dog’s training, Nick, Jessica and Isobel Guerriero and Isobel’s three siblings would spend in Ohio at 4 Paws and be trained on how to interact with the dog.
For now, Isobel will continue with behavioral, physical and speech therapy and she soon will begin attending PCCN Preschool in Portage, which the family chose because parents are allowed to attend classes with the students to help them with their growth and development.
“We never entered foster care with the intent to adopt,” Nick Guerriero said. “We just wanted to make a difference, but we believe we can help break the cycle with her. Her family has a history of drugs and alcohol, things that aren’t us. We both come from broken families too and we hope to all break the cycles together.
“Maybe at some point with all these skills and years of hard work she may be able to function in society independently. We’re definitely going to do everything we can to make sure that she should reach that goal.”
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