The fire alarm was begging to be pulled.
A young Myles Himmelreich called on every ounce of self-control he possessed each time he walked past. And he succeeded — until that fateful day several other students dared him.
That was all it took, his fingers at last finding an excuse to break free of his tenuous control and pull the device.
The other kids ran. Himmelreich was there when school staff came to investigate.
Years later and in his mid-30s, Himmelreich tells the story with a characteristic measure of self-effacing humour as he addresses a roomful of judges, lawyers and others who work in or with the justice system. Some of his stories elicit appreciative chuckles; others a silence borne of respect for the challenges he’s had to endure throughout his life.
While there is an attempt to understand — perhaps beyond anything the justice system has experienced before — a divide remains that Himmelreich, through his public speaking, is striving to bridge.
Himmelreich has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
“I didn’t fully understand the exact differences between myself and the other kids,” Himmelreich says in an interview. “But I do remember in elementary school, probably about Grade 5 is where I started thinking that I acted weird and different than the other kids and I didn’t understand why. I didn’t know why I couldn’t control the way I acted. I just did it, and then right after I did it, I would be like, ‘Why did I do that? Why would I act that way?’ ”
Himmelreich recalls being shunned not just by other kids, but by their parents, who would leave him behind for church or scouting events because he was considered “too much to deal with.”
“And so that was really difficult,” he says. “I think it was difficult for my parents, too, seeing their son being left on the porch and not being picked up to go to scouts because the parents couldn’t handle the way I was. And so the reaction from other people was very difficult because I didn’t understand why they were acting like that, and it would just make me feel very alone and isolated.”
That isolation ended when Himmelreich was 17. Having gone through school without any real friends and feeling like he didn’t fit in anywhere, he suddenly found himself surrounded by a group of people who accepted him as he was.
“They thought I was weird, they thought I was silly and immature, but they still would hang out with me as long as I showed up with a case of beer, a bag of weed, whatever it was that they could use …,” he says. “And when you haven’t been accepted and you haven’t felt like you fit in, you get to a point where you go, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes, even if I know it’s not the right thing or the best thing, even if I think and feel that you’re taking advantage of me.’ You still go and do these things because you just want to be accepted.”
Those friends later jumped him, beating him badly in a convenience store parking lot when he told them he didn’t have money for cigarettes. Twelve hours later, Himmelreich was back within their fold.
His relationships — both with peers and alcohol — would lead him, now and then, inside a justice system that many with FASD struggle to navigate.
One of the reasons Himmelreich tells his story at conferences like Regina’s recent International Training Symposium on Innovative Approaches to Justice: Where Justice and Treatment Meet is to provide others with a view into the lives of those who live with FASD — a disorder that is disproportionately represented among jail populations, according to those working in the field.
Cheryl Charron, manager of FASD Services with the Regina Community Clinic, notes 2014 information suggests there are about 55,000 people in Saskatchewan affected by prenatal alcohol exposure. And, she says, the numbers are growing worldwide.
“This isn’t going away,” she says.
One of the roadblocks continues to be the blame and stigma that goes along with a diagnosis. Because the disorder is the result of a woman’s drinking while pregnant, mothers of children born with FASD can be too ashamed to provide the information that can lead to a diagnosis.
Charron says that blame is misplaced. While a common misconception is that this disorder only happens to alcoholics from impoverished backgrounds, two significant risk groups are actually post-secondary students and professional women. In both cases, women not planning a pregnancy can easily go some time before realizing they are pregnant — during which time they’ve had a few social drinks on weekends or some wine after work. And any amount of alcohol during pregnancy creates a risk for FASD.
Affected children exhibit a wide range of symptoms, which might include impulsiveness, a lack of understanding of boundaries and consequences, a disconnect between chronological and developmental age, and memory problems. While some possess physical features, Charron notes in many cases FASD is an invisible disability.
Therein lies one of the problems faced by those in the justice system when faced with an accused with FASD: They might not know the person has it.
Regina lawyer Christina Skibinsky, who has represented a number of clients with FASD, says unexplainable behaviour, odd crimes, a lengthy record for breaches, and an overly agreeable attitude can all be possible clues.
“Sometimes (it’s) unexplainable behaviour, such as a real willingness to plead guilty without the client turning their mind to other options,” she says.
Regina Provincial Court Judge Clifford Toth — who presides in the city’s Drug Treatment and Mental Health Disposition courts —says it’s not unusual to miss the presence of FASD, though there can be clues for those who are carefully watching for them.
He recalls an unusual case he dealt with in Estevan while a newly appointed judge, involving a youth who’d stolen one walkie-talkie.
“Everyone was kind of chuckling, describing the facts, not getting it … I mean, there’s nothing you can do with one walkie-talkie …,” Toth says. “My instincts were correct and it turned out that there had been some history of documented FASD and a placement had broken down. And what was really needed was not a jail sentence where the kid would meet more marginalized youths that will convince the kid with FASD that, ‘in order to belong, you’ve got to do things for us.’ Rather, what the kid needed was a structured group home to stabilize (the youth) and we just had to find one. Otherwise, what we’re going to have is a kid doing increasingly criminal behaviour — not for the reasons that most of us would think people would do criminal behaviour, but because of their disability.”
The nature of the disorder makes those with it susceptible to gangs, which often find ways to use these new “members” — impulsive, eager to please and without a grasp of consequences — to do things others won’t.
“There’s a horrible statement out there saying, ‘You can get someone with FASD to do anything if you have the time to persuade them,’ ” Charron says. “And that can work both ways, and it has to be used with professionals. It’s used with a great deal of care. How can you help someone, persuade them to try something different that will improve an outcome for them? But the dark side of that is they can be persuaded very easily, and gangs have a lot of persuasion.”
There have been efforts in recent years to educate those in justice about the disorder, including a province-wide training session hosted in 2012 by then-Chief Judge Carol Snell.
Shortly after, mental health courts were created in Regina and Saskatoon (Saskatoon’s is called the Mental Health Strategy) that include people with FASD within their dockets.
These courts bring together those who work directly with those with disorders like FASD — such as those working in health and social services sectors — providing a level of assistance previously unavailable to the courts in such a direct way.
Toth says Regina Mental Health Disposition Court allows more time for each case — helping to make sense of the court process for clients — and provides services intended to keep them from returning. Assessments and case plans are completed that are intended to get to the root of the problem and work on solutions so clients are able to stay in the community in a way that’s safe for them and for the public.
Toth says it didn’t take long to see the results.
“The results were very, very encouraging. What we were finding was that there are often, in a clear majority of cases, much better solutions than jail and we were finding that they weren’t coming back anywhere near as much.”
University of Regina associate professor and researcher Dr. Michelle Stewart — one of the preeminent voices in the FASD conversation in the province — says the court is an example of a how taking a different approach to justice can work.
“It’s just about thinking creatively in the court settings,” she says. “And so now, at this point, what I see is we have an ongoing FASD and justice roundtable that meets in our community; we have the Mental Health Disposition Court; we have judges that are hosting sessions that bring in lawyers to get trained on FASD to become aware of the mental health court; there’s a collaboration between our university, the provincial courts and the ministry of justice to be thinking around FASD and justice. So there’s all these different projects and programs going on and all of them don’t only end up being exclusively about one thing, but rather always, I think, FASD-aware.”
While all agree the justice system has taken some positive steps, they add that much more needs to be done overall. And while that inevitably means money — for supported housing and programming, for starters — those with knowledge about FASD say it’s an investment that can both save cash and ensure a better quality of life for affected families.
And while the justice system continues to work toward self-improvement, Stewart says this is an issue that reaches far beyond those parameters.
“This isn’t the work for the courts,” she says. “This is work (for) the community.”
Himmelreich is now six years sober and mentoring others with FASD.
He’s learned ways to cope, tricks he uses to distract himself from the sensory overload that can lead to problems.
While there is much more that needs to happen to help those with FASD, Himmelreich is pleased to see symposiums like the one earlier this year.
“Having conferences like this, and any conference that we’re talking about FASD is going to help shift society’s view of FASD so that we can get past the stigmas, the shame and the blame,” he says. “Because once we get the right answers and we know what’s actually going on, then we can go in the right direction.”
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