Screening for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder could impact level of youth crime, experts say
By Katherine Gregory
Posted yesterday at 5:55pmSun 25 Oct 2015, 5:55pm
Map: NTScreening juveniles for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) could help break the cycle of youth crime, leading paediatricians and youth justice workers say.
FASD is caused by women drinking excessive amounts of alcohol when pregnant and can cause severe developmental delays, learning difficulties, memory impairment and behavioural problems in children.
It often goes undiagnosed because there is no standardised testing system for FASD. Catherine Crawford, a West Australian children's court magistrate, has advocated screening children who go before the court for FASD. "There are a significant number of young people that are dealt with in the court system that may be affected by neuro disabilities," Ms Crawford said.
"That affects their behaviour. And unless the court has information about that, the sentence may be imposed which does not take into account that health issue which may need therapeutic intervention to change that behaviour."
Incarcerated youth mostly indigenous
Ms Crawford estimated a quarter of youth incarcerated were affected by something like FASD.
The rates are higher among Indigenous children and they make up 96 per cent of young people in youth detention in the Northern Territory.
The cost of early intervention is nothing compared to the cost when things go wrong. Darwin-based lawyer Jonathon Hunyor Jonathon Hunyor, principal legal officer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency in Darwin, said the agency often represented juveniles who they believed had cognitive impairments like FASD.
"It's often hard for our lawyers to know. Certainly there's a greater need for screening," Mr Hunyor said.
"If we can figure out if that's part of cognitive impairment or FASD, that's going to help us prevent further offending and help the court in this exercise of what to do with this young person, how to impose an appropriate sentence that will rehabilitate and deal with the underlying problem."
National inquiries recommend screening tool
Over the past few years there have been two national inquires into FASD and one in the Northern Territory.
The idea of the juvenile screening tool was recommended in the 2012 FASD: Hidden Harm inquiry report, but has not yet been developed.
It also recommended rolling out a diagnostic instrument to test all children for FASD by 2013.
Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash said the Government was now acting on it.
"The Government's first priority is to finalise and deliver the National FASD Diagnostic Tool. The Telethon Kids Institute is contracted to finalise and disseminate the tool, which will be ready to release in December 2015," Ms Nash said in a statement.
Dr Raewyn Mutch, a paediatrician working on the tool with Telethon, said the tool would be useful for all children and youth who may have behavioural or cognitive difficulties.
"We know that a lot of children that come before the court have those difficulties.
"[The tool] takes into account the need to understand prenatal history, takes into account how the child learns and behaves, and it gives clear instructions about which specific aspects of the child you need to measure in a standardised way to understand their strengths and difficulties.''
Tool could break cycle of crime: experts
Ms Crawford said she believed the tool should be rolled out sooner and that courts were already using it in Canada and the United States.
"There's no reason why screening couldn't start next month. All that would need to happen is juvenile justice officers be trained in the use of the probation officers screening tool, which has been developed for British Columbia," she said.
Ms Crawford said it would require strong leadership from the Federal Government.
But Minister Nash said each state and territory would have to make their own decisions about using the screening tool in their respective justice systems.
So far the Federal Government has committed $9.2 million to FASD, but rolling out the diagnostic and juvenile screening tool could cost much more.
Experts said the up-front cash outlay is worth it in the long term.
"The cost of early intervention is nothing compared to the cost when things go wrong. It costs over $200,000 a year to lock up a young person. That's a lot of money that we could be spending on the problems caused by FASD," NAAJA's Jonathon Hunyor said.
Legal and health professionals agree the tool would be useful in not only breaking the cycle of youth crime, but preventing future generations of women unknowingly harming their unborn babies.
"The strength of understanding what children and youth can and cannot do, optimises their chances for rehab and optimises their chances to be successfully and socially re-engaged, and to have a successful life," Dr Mutch said.
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