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Date posted: 17 February 2014
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a lifelong injury that leaves sufferers much more likely to break the law, and to break it repeatedly, even after long jail stints.
Research published in 2013 in the Journal of judicial administration suggests many people with the disorder will fall into a life of crime while still children. Professor Elizabeth Elliott, a paediatrician at Sydney University, says 'a lot of the kids that are in juvenile justice, particularly in Indigenous settings, may well be kids with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. They find themselves in juvenile justice, or even imprisoned in some circumstances, without people recognising that these are children who are disabled intellectually.'
A federal parliamentary inquiry in 2012 called for FASD to be officially recognised as a disability, stressing the need for better awareness among police, lawyers, judges and prison staff. Crime is one of the most complex issues and experts warn the justice system is ill-equipped to recognise, let alone support, sufferers of FASD.
The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy and breastfeeding. But polling by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education shows almost 50% of women drink alcohol not knowing they are pregnant, while one in five continue to drink once their pregnancy has been confirmed.
Sometimes referred to as 'the hidden harm', FASD can be mistaken for autism or attention deficit disorder, but often sufferers receive no diagnosis at all. 'The behaviours are perceived as deliberate, wilful, manipulative,' says Vicki Russell, chief executive of the National Organisation of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (NOFASD). 'But at the end of the day, they're symptomatic of brain damage - invisible brain damage.'
A University of Queensland law professor, Heather Douglas, fears sufferers may receive harsher sentences from judges who see them as unrepentant, rather than incapable of change. 'We have a long way to go in Australia just making sure that those in the criminal justice system are aware of the problems associated with FASD,' Douglas says. 'A lot of people just don't realise it exists.'
In a survey of Queensland judges, Douglas found most had never requested an assessment for a suspected case of FASD, often because of scarce resources. The judges surveyed tended to associate the disorder with abnormal physical features and low intelligence. But although some people with FASD have distinctive physical features - a small head, small eyes, thin upper lip - most sufferers look like everyone else. And most receive normal IQ scores because their problems with memory, attention and behaviour control do not tend to show up on standard intelligence tests.
Frequently people with FASD are back in jail soon after their release, having breached their parole conditions. The chief legal officer at the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, John McKenzie, says many are bound to breach inappropriate conditions such as strict curfews.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald