Yukon FASD study prompts calls for ‘system-wide change’
Seen in about 1% of overall population, FASD diagnosed in 17.5% involved in Yukon justice system
By Philippe Morin, CBC News
A study in Yukon is showing the prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) within the criminal justice system.
The condition affects an estimated 1 per cent of children in Canada, but new research shows the percentage of people within Yukon’s justice system with FASD is 17.5 per cent, or about one in six.
A Yukon government study examined people at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre either serving sentences or on remand as well as people under Community Supervision Orders.
Dr. Kaitlyn McLachlan was the study’s lead investigator. She works with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University.
“That tells us, a sizeable proportion of people in criminal justice are experiencing difficulties in their day-to-day functioning,” she said.
McLachlan says Yukon’s research is unique in Canada and illustrates the intersection of criminal justice and mental health care.
“It puts Yukon in a position to consider system-wide change,” she said.
‘Not appropriate’ care say critics
One advocate for change is Dr. Larry Burd, who serves as director of North Dakota’s Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Center and is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine. He’s been researching FASD for 30 years.
He says incarceration is “not appropriate” for people with FASD as the “impairment focuses on this issue of thinking, evaluating before you act. That’s quite impaired by FASD. We end up with people that are in the correction system because of brain damage.”
Burd adds that governments in the U.S. and Canada are “just using the corrective system because that’s all that’s available.”
In 2003, Burd attempted to get voluntary estimates from Canadian provinces and territories.
At the time, Yukon’s correctional system estimated that only 2.6% of offenders had FASD.
The new findings are almost seven times higher.
“I think it’s a huge step forward in addressing a much under-considered problem with very serious consequences,” he said.
FASD linked to poor impulse control
FASD is linked to poor impulse control, mood swings and difficulty in understanding consequences.
Wenda Bradley works with FASD Yukon. She says she’s seen how its effects can lead to repeated incarceration.
“I know a fellow who has 18 years of time served, but only two or three months at a time. That’s not healthy for him. And it’s not useful for anybody because it’s always this turnaround,” she said.
One example Bradley mentioned is that clients often miss appointments with a parole officers.
“People can be in (the criminal justice system) for a long amount of time because they can’t understand the rules or can’t follow through with the rules and keep circling in and out of the system,” she said.
Bradley says she hopes the justice system will change and ensure there are “supports in place, before people start getting into trouble.”
Yukon MP calls for change in law
Yukon MP Larry Bagnell has brought forward a private members’ bill, calling for more treatment and less incarceration in cases of FASD.
“I’m excited the study’s done, because it gives the government impetus for action,” Bagnell said.
“[People with FASD] need support to make sure they integrate properly in society. Their brain is malfunctioning through no fault of their own. They need direction, they need guidance and they need to be treated differently by the correction and justice system.”
Bagnell adds that “sentencing doesn’t make any sense if you don’t understand the purpose as a deterrent.”
The FASD study is part of a larger project involving Yukon’s departments of Justice, and Health and Social Services.
In 2014, when the project had been recently announced, then-federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay visited Whitehorse and said the research was leading the country.
Part of the challenge is that FASD is hard to diagnose. A Canadian medical standard for diagnosis was only approved in 2005, with revisions in 2015.
Yukon, meanwhile, is working to create a FASD assessment and diagnostics team which will help the justice system identify people with FASD.
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