Fetal alcohol disorder cases challenge justice system: survey

A survey of how well the Yukon's justice system deals with people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, suggests justice professionals know little about the disorder.

A survey of how well the Yukon's justice system deals with people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, suggests justice professionals know little about the disorder.

The survey, which also interviewed people with FASD, their parents and support workers, found that people with the disorder had little or no understanding of what's happening to them when they go before the courts.

The report was released Thursday in Whitehorse, at a national conference on how well the justice system deals with people with FASD, a type of brain damage suffered by a fetus while in the mother's uterus. The disorder can lead to impulsive, self-destructive behaviour.

Researcher Lisa Jacobs told delegates that justice professionals who have worked with people with FASD also sense that their clients don't understand what's going on, and in some cases feel overwhelmed.

Referring to one social worker she spoke with, Jacobs said, "He looked so tired and burnt out and discouraged.

"But then, a few minutes later, he was talking about how, you know, if there was more training and if there were more services, all the things he could for his clients," she added.

Another professional surveyed said working with five FASD clients felt like working with 50 clients without FASD, Jacobs said.

Individuals need structure, routine, parents say

Jacobs told delegates that advocates for people with FASD have made suggestions for improvement, "but over and over again, we were told that at the end of the day, none of these will have much short- and long-term impact if the person doesn't have stable supportive housing to return to," she said.

FASD advocates in the Yukon have long called for supported housing that provides the supervision that adults with FASD need to stay on track. Such housing could make a big difference, according to interviews with adoptive parents of FASD children.

"We asked them, 'What worked? How did you keep your children out of trouble? And they said it was a lot of structure, a lot of routine, certainly a lot of love, and a great amount of flexibility," Jacobs said.

Support workers who want to make a difference say they just need the tools to do the job, Jacobs said.

Give FASD clients special consideration: expert

Dozens of justice officials, social and community workers from across Canada are attending the two-day Path to Justice conference, which began Thursday and wraps up Friday in the Yukon capital.

Moderators at the conference, including deputy health minister Stuart Whitley, urged delegates to remember who they are talking about over the two days.

"Imagine if you will, the unjustness of being visited with an affliction, upon an otherwise healthy child, that results in impulsivity, poor judgment, lack of understanding of cause and effect," Whitley said.

Sterling Clarren, a leading researcher on FASD, told delegates that alcohol affects every part of a person's brain, with those effects leading to things like social isolation, poor job performance and homelessness.

"Clearly, this form of brain damage needs special consideration before the law, whether it's from alcohol or any other cause," Clarren said.

Brain damage from FASD can range from mild to severe, and not everyone is diagnosed. Clarren said people must first be diagnosed with FASD before special consideration before the law would be possible.