Nfld. & Labrador

Inmate's death shines light on fetal alcohol disorders in justice system

It's wasn't just Jonathan Henoche's death that angered Bob Buckingham, but a number of systems that the St. John's lawyer says failed his client.

Majority of N.L. must leave province for FASD assessment, diagnosis, expert says

Jonathan Henoche appears in court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay by video conference in 2017. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

It's wasn't just Jonathan Henoche's death that angered Bob Buckingham, but a number of systems that the St. John's lawyer says failed his client.

Henoche, an Inuit man who lived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay prior to his incarceration, had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Buckingham said Thursday in the wake of his death.

"Mr. Henoche was an unlikely champion in that he was burdened with the invisibility of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and with his limited capacity due to permanent brain damage disability to raise possible defences within the Newfoundland and Labrador courts," Buckingham said in a letter to media. 

When a woman drinks alcohol while pregnant, her fetus is exposed to alcohol through her bloodstream. It can result in a myriad of lifelong effects on the brain and body. Those with the disorder have a greater chance of winding up in the justice system. 

Henoche died Wednesday following what sources say was a violent altercation involving correctional officers at Her Majesty's Penitentiary. The cause of death has not yet been made public.

There is absolute dearth of leadership by our provincial government in developing law and policy to assist survivors with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.- Bob Buckingham

At the time of his death, he was awaiting trial on first-degree murder for the July 2016 death of Regula Schule, 88, in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. 

Schule was a well-respected woman who volunteered her time counselling inmates and helping the homeless in her retirement.

She too knew about FASD, having adopted a girl with the disorder while in North West River. Susie Schule was not hurt in the fire, which was set following her mother's death. The details of the killing have not been released, as the case was heading to trial. 

Regula Schule and her daughter Susie visited Switzerland in the '80s. (Submitted by Hannes Schule)

Underassessed and underdiagnosed

FASD affects up to four per cent of the population in Canada but is invisible, and thought to be largely undiagnosed or confused with autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

It is particularly underassessed on the island portion of the province, where there is no one available to diagnose FASD in the Eastern, Central and Western health authority regions. 

Labrador-Grenfell Health is the only provincial health authority with a multidisciplinary diagnostic team able to identity FASD. The assessments are available for people ages eight to 18.

That means the majority of people cannot get an assessment or diagnosis for the disorders within Newfoundland and Labrador, said Katharine Dunbar Winsor, the project co-ordinator at the non-profit organization Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Newfoundland and Labrador.

Dunbar Winsor said the organization operates on a small budget of year-to-year funding that supports parents, caregivers and people with with FASD.

She has also developed training for justice professionals, which will be implemented in the coming year. 

FASD and the justice system

FASD can be suspected but not properly diagnosed — not since the retirement of Dr. Ted Rosales, who worked for decades diagnosing and treating youth with the disorder. 

Katharine Dunbar Winsor is the project co-ordinator at Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders Newfoundland and Labrador. (© Concordia University)

Individuals with FASD are more likely to end up in the justice system because some have difficulty understanding cause and effect, have issues with impulse control and difficulty with decision-making. 

"I hope the defence bar takes up the challenge of diligently representing people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and through vigorous, gladiator-like defences force the system and our courts to address the abysmal failure of our system to understand FASD," said Buckingham.

According to Dunbar Winsor, prevalence of FASD in Canadian inmates ranges from about 10 to 23 per cent. 

"It might not be recognized by caregivers, parents or teachers," Dunbar Winsor said.

"They might say, 'OK, there's something off here we don't know what it is,' or, 'This child is being wilfully disobedient,' and so it can be very much a blame-based reaction to the individual from a very early age."

How does N.L. stack up?

If at least four per cent of the population has FASD — more common statistically than autism, cerebral palsy and down syndrome — why isn't it as taked about?

Dunbar Winsor said there is still a deep stigma that exists, which also may be why some people go undiagnosed.

But, she stressed, "getting the diagnosis itself is not your golden ticket."

In Newfoundland and Labrador, she said, FASD is under-resourced and if a child isn't diagnosed by Grade 4, they are unable to be placed on a specialized education plan. 

"There is absolute dearth of leadership by our provincial government in developing law and policy to assist survivors with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and there is an absence of skill, leadership, interest, facilities and programs to help such individuals who find themselves incarcerated, but this is another issue for another time," Buckingham said.

Dunbar Winsor said there has been movement toward better understanding FASD in the Canadian justice system but that there is still a long way to go.

It's a tricky subject, she said, that may require changing how we think about punishment, blame and justice, for people who have a permanent brain injury.

And Newfoundland and Labrador, she said, is lagging as a whole when it comes to the disorder. 

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About the Author

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.