WHITECLAY, Neb. — More than 60 people crammed into a quonset hut in this notorious village Thursday to learn more about the epidemic of fetal alcohol syndrome in the surrounding rural area.
For organizers, it was a chance to show the alcohol-related misery caused by the millions of cans of high-alcohol beer sold in this unincorporated village. Most of that beer is sold to residents of the officially dry Pine Ridge Reservation, just across the South Dakota border.
It was an unusual, remote location for a medical conference, but the site was picked for dramatic effect: Some street people lay passed out along the highway amid dilapidated buildings the night before the event.
“It’s easy to talk about this issue in a fancy hotel and go to lunch and say, ‘That’s too bad,’ ” said one of the organizers, Nora Boesem. “We really wanted to bring people to ground zero.”
Organizers revealed Thursday that the effort to combat fetal alcohol syndrome and alcoholism has enlisted a new ally: the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
In March, the documentary film “Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian” was shown at UNMC. The film, which follows the lives of some of the street people as they struggle with alcoholism and broken family lives, prompted concern from med center researchers about the public health crisis in Whiteclay.
Dr. Shilpa Buch, director of the Nebraska Center for Substance Abuse Research at UNMC, said the research hospital is figuring out its role in the issues at Whiteclay.
Those issues have been in the state and national spotlight for more than two decades.
Last year, the town’s four beer-only liquor stores sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer.
Many blame the town, known as “skid row of the Plains,” as the main contributor to high rates of alcoholism on the reservation and to problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome.
Although scientific studies are hard to find, it’s estimated that 1 in 4 children born on the reservation suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, a birth defect that causes physical abnormalities as well as lifelong learning and emotional disabilities. By contrast, the national rate for fetal alcohol syndrome is 1 or 2 per thousand.
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who’s leading a new interim study for the Legislature of Whiteclay alcohol sales, was among those at the conference, which continues through today.
The situation is a public health emergency that demands action, Pansing Brooks said. She said the damage being caused to South Dakota infants by alcohol from Nebraska is much worse than that caused by the sale of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado — yet Nebraska has sued Colorado.
In recent months, the fetal alcohol problem has prompted action from activists such as Boesem of Newell, South Dakota, who has served as a foster parent for dozens of fetal alcohol kids, and Barbara Vancil, who has fostered such kids from her home in nearby Hay Springs, Nebraska.
The two women organized this week’s conference at Whiteclay. They have been lobbying health officials and government officials to help increase awareness and diagnosis and to improve treatment options for the victims.
“We are just two moms who want to tell others about the dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant,” they said in promotional materials for the conference.
Their work seems to be having an impact. Attendance at the conference, “Broken Lives: Addiction and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder,” is more than double the attendance of a “summit” on Whiteclay issues last year.
Having UNMC involved is significant because of the resources the medical center can bring to the issue, said John Maisch, an Oklahoma lawyer who produced the recent Whiteclay documentary.
Frank LaMere, a Native American activist from South Sioux City, Nebraska, who was one of the first to call attention to Whiteclay, Thursday called the village “the illegitimate child of Nebraska and Sheridan County.”
“Nobody wants to talk about it. … People think if you leave it alone, it will go away,” LaMere said.
Pansing Brooks, the state senator, said it’s been much more effective to focus on the public health situation than to try to shut down the Whiteclay beer stores. State officials have said they are powerless to shut the stores so long as they obey state liquor laws — laws, such as prohibiting sales to intoxicated customers, that activists say are regularly broken.
Earlier this year, a group of local business owners and Sheridan County officials began meeting in private to devise ways to address the vagrants who live, drink and pass out on Whiteclay streets. Some say the street people have become more aggressive, hurting businesses in Whiteclay that don’t sell alcohol.
The group, formed at the urging of Gov. Pete Ricketts, has withheld comment on its work until it composes some final recommendations, which are expected in the next few weeks.
LaMere called the group “a ruse” designed to “buy more time to maintain the status quo.”
“It’s hard to talk about ‘Nebraska Nice’ here,” he said.
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