A SURVEY among police, corrective services and WA’s legal institutions has revealed 85 per cent of staff at various levels within the organisations have dealt with young people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
The staff also felt that meeting the needs of juvenile FASD offenders is an issue.
The FARE-funded study by Dr Raewyn Mutch and colleagues from the Alcohol, Pregnancy and FASD Research Group at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, recommends education and training to improve identification of youth with FASD charged by police and tried by law.
People with FASD have a neurocognitive impairment. The damage is done in utero by overexposure to alcohol—affecting proper development of memory processing, adaptive skills and thinking skills that help control behaviour.
The questionnaire based study assessed the knowledge, awareness and attitudes towards FASD among professionals within the State’s justice system—its findings already making a difference by triggering the judiciary to work collaboratively on translating research into practice.
“A qualitative approach has the power to tell a story, the power to measure what you see,” says Dr Mutch.
“They [FASD affected offenders] are vulnerable when they are questioned by police and in the court of law. They may look normal but they don’t behave as such.”
In WA’s Supreme Court, for some people to be treated equally before the law, they have to be treated differently.
“[But] if they don’t have a specific diagnosis, they cannot have alternative sentencing under the law,” she says.
There is currently no reliable statistics or proper identification of offenders with FASD in the justice system.
The fact that FASD is not recognised as a disability in Australia complicates the matter further.
In the US court of law, a diagnosis of FASD allows the neurocognitive handicap to be seen as a mitigating not an aggravating factor, which contributes to greater justice and more possibilities for FASD offenders.
Improving screening tools and guidelines on how to manage individuals with FASD can change services within the justice system and reduce currently inevitable relapse.
Study manager, Ms Heather Jones, argues that, “memory deficit testing would be a start. FASD offenders don’t learn, don’t remember, but they do have capacities and we need to find what works for them”.
Dr Mutch shared her research outcomes at the recent Senate Inquiry on Justice Reinvestment in Perth.