FAS offender need special help, justice experts say

Prison inmates with FAS require constant “hand-holding”



Nunavut’s justice system should expand awareness-training and programs related to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, presenters told delegates at a symposium in Iqaluit last weekend.

Visiting speakers told the 50 or so participants at the government-sponsored symposium that although Nunavut may not have the staff or money to diagnose every case, the territory should continue to help FASD sufferers who enter the justice system.

“The essential message is people who suffer from FASD have a reduced capacity to connect cause and effect. These are not people who are legally insane or unfit to stand trial. But what we’re talking about here is their capacity to commit crime and make choices. We have to treat them differently,” said Rod Garson, a Crown attorney with the federal department of justice in Winnipeg.

FASD occurs when expectant mothers drink alcohol during pregnancy and the alcohol’s toxins pass to their unborn babies.

The disorder covers Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or “FAS,” and Fetal Alcohol Effects, or “FAE.” People with FASD may suffer from memory problems, impulsivity and difficulties in processing information, as well as physical problems such as facial defects.

Health officials assume FASD is common in Nunavut. But because it can cost roughly $15,000 per case to diagnose, and Nunavut lacks a trained team of diagnostic experts, there are few available statistics.

A report done by the RCMP in 2001 suggests 30 per cent of Nunavut’s expectant mothers may drink significant amounts of alcohol while pregnant, and 85 per cent of their children will show symptoms of FAS. It says 65 per cent of prison inmates may suffer from FAS.

Garson, who worked in the Yukon for close to 10 years and trains police officers who deal with fetal alcohol offenders, said FASD sufferers need special treatment to help restore them to their communities — the principle goal of the justice system.

FASD sufferers require extra considerations during police investigation, sentencing, incarceration and probation.

“I’m told things as simple as keeping an appointment to see a doctor require them to be told not weeks, not days, but an hour before,” Garson said. “The phrase ‘hand-holding’ comes to mind. They have to be hand-holding probation orders.”

If an FASD offender is not closely monitored, he said, they will likely return to jail not because they deliberately broke their probation, but because they simply lacked the focus or memory to obey it.

Garson also recommended alternative justice, such as sentencing circles, for FASD offenders. These alternatives, he said, are preferable, because they not only help restore an individual to the community, they allow the community as a whole to address FASD.

Fr. Dale Jeffrey, an Anglican chaplain at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, told attendees jail is a particularly difficult environment for a person with FASD.

“They tend to be victimized…. It predisposes them to be sexually or otherwise used inappropriately by other inmates,” he said. “Most guys in jail know not to say some things, who to saddle up to, but they [FASD inmates] don’t have any guile and as a result they’re at risk,” he said.

Ideally any prison would have a separate unit for FASD inmates, similar to those used for violent offenders, Jeffrey said. But if resources are limited, training corrections officers to understand typical FASD behaviour is an effective way of addressing potential problems, he said.

Corrections facilities can also provide special education for FASD inmates on how to behave in prison, he said.

Presenters at the symposium agreed the best programs remain those that prevent FASD altogether — such as awareness campaigns for expectant mothers. But many also suggested police and community members can take a more involved stance with youth as soon as they suspect FASD may be causing unwanted behaviour.

“FASD is a problem that has to be recognized at early stages. If there is a problem apparent in early stages, it’s so important to try and deal with them outside court system,” said Dino Norris, an officer with the Yellowknife RCMP detachment.

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