Judge: NZ courts ill-equipped for foetal alcohol cases

  • 19/05/2015

What's Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)? Had our courts known the answer twenty years ago, Teina Pora would have likely led a very different life.

The Privy Council's recent decision to quash the New Zealander's murder conviction has flung the general implications of failing to diagnose FASD right before the courts.

Just how many young sufferers are needlessly ending up in jail?

"I see the key problem as the courts not knowing that a young person has a neurodevelopmental disorder, i.e. brain damage, and that they are unable to effectively function in society, make choices," says Judge Catherine Crawford.

The Australian Children's Magistrate has been investigating how young people who are affected by FASD are dealt with in various judicial systems around the world.

She is in New Zealand this week to share her findings with Kiwi health and legal professionals.

"These are young people with a disability," says Judge Crawford.

"We need to treat them as if they have a disability. If they get the support and the intervention they need, they can be diverted away from the criminal justice system. If they don't receive that support, that intervention, the likelihood is their behaviour will escalate."

International studies show 60 percent of FASD sufferers end up in some kind of trouble. The disorder, caused by pre-natal exposure to alcohol, can leave them with a range of physical and mental impairments.

FASD sufferers often have reduced impulse control and are too trusting.  Others are violent and cognitively impaired.

When they come to the attention of the law, they can encounter a system that seems fundamentally unable to cope with the range of challenging behaviours that their disorder brings.

Some countries are implementing FASD action plans, could New Zealand benefit from the same approach?

Judge Crawford said Canada had adopted some good practices. In the province of Alberta, seven different departments have been brought together to implement a 10 year strategy.

"There is a system where police with the permission of the carer have a flag in the system for a young person who has a diagnosis of FASD who's been in the criminal justice system before. That then enables the police officer to consider what is the appropriate action at that point."

Other support includes programmes in schools and help for families to modify the behaviour at home of a young person with FASD.

Judge Crawford says the key to it all is early diagnosis.

"Diagnosis in the criminal justice system is particularly important so that judges have evidence about what the impairment is, the nature of it and can take that into account when determining sentence."

"It goes to the issue of culpability of that young person, it goes to their capacity to fulfil the requirements of any sentence ordered by the court."

Judge Crawford's views are shared by one of New Zealand's leading FASD experts Dr Valerie McGinn.

"What we're getting is a whole influx of young people in the courts who've failed in school because they haven't had their special needs catered to.

"Once children are diagnosed and everyone knows what their learning needs are and what their behavioural needs are then you can actually manage them a lot better and they don't necessarily go on a pathway to crime."

Dr McGinn says the Government needs to support New Zealand being in the World Health Organisation study to look at how big the problem at home.

"It's going to require some funding but it's going to save huge amounts of funding also. We haven't been able to do the prevalence studies because it's not a popular thing to talk about."

She said there also needs to be continued education on the dangers of women drinking during pregnancy.

"In generations gone past there were alcoholic women but in general women didn't drink as much as they do now. It's a snowballing problem and it's a problem that the whole society needs to address. It's just not good enough to say to pregnant women, 'don't drink'."

3 News

source: newshub archive