Welcome to my Crime and Justice blog! I am a 19 year old criminal justice student at the University of Winnipeg. I advocate for prisoners' rights, human rights, equality and criminal justice/prison system reforms.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Youth programs battle Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

VANCOUVER -- More than 300 young criminals are waiting to get diagnosed and treated for alcohol-related birth defects through a crime-fighting program at the Manitoba courts.
In the last five years, the FASD Youth Justice Program has diagnosed about 72 kids with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. But judges, lawyers, probation officers and other court officials have referred about five times that many kids to the program, which screens repeat offenders, sends them to doctors for an official diagnosis and helps tailor a sentence that might help a young person with a brain injury stay out of trouble.
It's a unique program that helps the courts deal with kids whose brains are simply not hard-wired to learn from traditional punishments like jail and probation, justice officials told a national FASD conference in Vancouver this week.
"We're very good at the sausage-factory justice, the Kentucky Fried justice, the millions and millions served," said Manitoba provincial court Judge Mary Kate Harvie. "But if you take the time to do it properly, it's worth the investment."
The problem is, the youth justice program can only refer two kids a month to doctors at the FASD clinic at Health Sciences Centre to get an official diagnosis that counts as evidence in court. If resources were available, justice staff say, they could send five times that many kids with suspected FASD to the clinic per month.
Though it was featured at the conference, the youth justice program, now five years old, has flown largely under the radar in Manitoba despite constant public outcry about chronic car thieves and young offenders.
Everyone from defence lawyers to judges to probation officers can refer a youth to the program, where a team of co-ordinators do an initial screen and some detective work, checking out old case files and even tracking down biological mothers to ask if they drank during pregnancy.
Program co-ordinator Dan Neault said when he started his job, he had to go out for a cigarette before getting up the nerve to call mothers and pose such a tough question. But he found mothers remarkably willing to admit they'd been drinking, partly because they were so desperate to get help for their out-of-control teen.
"They were never picked up in the school system, they were never picked up in the child welfare system, they weren't picked up anywhere," said Neault.
More than 90 per cent of the kids diagnosed with FASD have IQs in the low to "mentally deficient" range, raising questions about how effective punitive jail time is in deterring crime when young people might not have the mental capacity to understand the nature of what they've done.
Once kids get a diagnosis, that sparks a shift in sentencing and follow-up.
FASD in the courts
PEOPLE with FASD have probably been wrongfully convicted by a court system set up for them to fail, says a noted lawyer.
Kent Roach, a University of Toronto law professor who has studied fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, said Canada's justice system is built on the assumption criminals make rational choices of their own free will and can learn from punishment, neither of which may be true for people with FASD who have brain damage from birth.
Low IQs, trouble with language and executive functioning mean people with FASD are more willing to confess to crimes they didn't commit, have difficulty understanding legalese and their rights and struggle to grasp the consequences of their actions.
"My view is that a wrongful conviction of a person with FASD is only a matter of time," Roach told hundreds of delegates at this week's FASD conference in Vancouver. "I think we've probably already had wrongful convictions in the form of unfair and disproportionate punishments."

I think this is a great program as FASD is very prevalent among Aboriginal youths especially, and should be treated by the courts as a mental illness, because they are incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions. More youths should be able to be referred to be diagnosed. And we need to learn that deterrence in general is not effective, not just for youths, but for everyone. Studies have shown that the prospect of punishment or prison does not deter people from committing crimes.

I think there needs to be more education in schools about drinking while pregnant seeing as many children with FASD are born to very young mothers. There also needs to be alot more addictions treatment available to young individuals.

FASD eye-opener

For decades now, the simple math has put the cost to the public system of a baby born with alcohol-induced brain damage at $1 million over his or her lifetime. Over time that's moved closer to $1.5 million, but it is a rough estimate. Now, however, there are some firm numbers attached to the tab and the picture coming into focus is an eye opener.
The itemized account constructed by University of Manitoba researchers measured the costs to the health and education systems of children with and without fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The disproportionate reliance annually on health services and special supports in school is stark -- FASD children will be in hospital at about twice the rate of the general population and their visits cost 40 per cent more. They are far likelier to be hospitalized with a mental illness, more than three times as likely to be on anti-psychotic medications. In school, special supports for FASD kids will cost an average $7,343 yearly, $5,000 more than for kids in the general population.

Some 135 Manitobans are born each year affected by alcohol. The U of M study is a small peek at the profound impact FASD has on children, who will need intensive support to get through school. Further, the total costs are likely underestimated as Manitoba, like most provinces, has just begun to scratch at meeting the needs of FASD, to keep them from falling out of school, into poverty and crime or from becoming victims of crime.
Once a child is grown and out of school, supports fall off, as does the chance of diagnosis. For many, the first mention of FASD comes in a court-ordered, pre-sentence report.
It is easy to do the math, here. Manitoba spends just more than $10 million yearly on FASD. There is expected to be more money allotted this year to prevention, but it will not be enough. Until the money and work to convince and coerce pregnant women not to drink is redoubled, there will be no getting ahead of the curve of this scourge.

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