Fetal alcohol syndrome linked to crime

Almost half of young offenders suffer from birth defect

The Saskatoon Star Phoenix news, front page
Tuesday, March 10, 1998
By Dan Zakreski

As many as half the young offenders appearing in provincial court may be there because their mothers drank during pregnancy, says Royal University Hospital psychologist Josephine Nanson.

The youths are born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), and they move undiagnosed through the criminal justice system. Given the nature of their affliction, they often reoffend when released.

Nanson said the situation will only worsen unless action is taken to address their medical condition and steps are taken to prevent women from drinking when pregnant.

"We have 207 we can identify (with full-blown FAS). We're talking about more than a $300-million cost to our society, and those are just the ones we've identified," she said.

"We're talking about a disorder that's very common in this province. It affects a large number of individuals and most that we've identified are under 25. They're young people and there are at least 1,000. Probably more." Nanson based the cost to society on an American study which pegged the cost of treating those with FAS at about $1.5 million per case. Her assessment has tremendous implications for how the criminal justice system handles youth in custody, says University of Saskatchewan law professor Tim Quigley.

"It's analagous to the mental disorder defence, in the sense that we've said that people who are affected should not be punished in the usual criminal justice sense," he said.

"Are these victims just as much affected by something over which they have no control, and are they deserving of punishment?"

Saskatchewan Legal Aid Commission lawyer Kearney Healy says Nanson's suggestion strikes to the basic principles of criminal justice.

"The criminal justice system is based on the premise that people understand there are rules, why they have to be obeyed, and if they aren't obeyed then society has the right to come up with any number of options," he said.

"All of those things are irrelevant to these kids. It's got nothing to do with good or bad - they just don't see it the same way."

Nanson and four colleagues jointly authored a 1996 study on fetal alcohol syndrome in Saskatchewan.

They examined 207 cases over a two-year period and concluded the incidence of FAS had not dropped in the province during the past 20 years, despite efforts to inform the public of the dangers of drinking while pregnant.

Eighty-six per cent of those diagnosed with FAS were of aboriginal origin. University of Saskatchewan community health and epidemiology professor Brian Habbick cautions against painting it as a problem only affecting Natives.

"Alcoholism is more prevalent in disadvantaged populations. We should pay attention to that," he said.

Children afflicted with full-blown FAS display both physical and mental characteristics. Those with partial FAS may not have the physical abnormalities, but they display the same behavioral and psychological problems.

These include a low IQ, difficulty in learning from experience, poor judgment, poor cause and effect reasoning and an unawareness of the consequences of behavior.

These are the very attributes that can lead to crime, Nanson said.

"They are very impulsive and do things that are not well thought out, and they get into significant difficulty from that," she said.

"The malicious intent is seldom there. I find they're exploited by more talented criminals to do some of the running, if you like, and they're more likely to get caught."

Nanson said a study done at Sunnyhill Hospital in Burnaby, B.C. found up to 40 per cent of the youth in custody had alcohol exposure during pregnancy. Given the results of the Saskatchewan FAS study, she said it's fair to extrapolate similar numbers here.

"There is an increasing number of cases reaching the courts because we've been diagnosing this for about 20 years. Those individuals are now in adolescence and adulthood, and at a prime age for when they're going to be involved in the court system," she said.

"It presents tremendous challenges, and I'm not sure the courts always understand."

Habbick added that, given the strict diagnostic criteria used in the study, "you're only looking at the tip of the iceberg.

"For every full case of fetal alcohol syndrome, there are four out there with the partial effects."

Healy says his personal experience working with youth as a legal aid lawyer supports Nanson's assessment.

"All too often, I find there are children who aren't able to moderate their behavior in even the most obvious ways, even when there are strong rewards," he said.

"Instead, they are doing things that are going to cause them a great amount of personal pain, for no gain. When I see them, I've got to think there's something going on there."

Shirley LeClaire of Social Services' Family Service Bureau says "there's been a longstanding history in our community of not giving this the attention it needs.

"It's one of the areas where there's not a lot of attention paid, especially fetal alcohol effects, because you don't have the physical attributes," she said.

"The whole area of FAS and fetal alcohol effects is significant because the way that our system is set up to deal with kids is obviously not going to work for them."

One of the ironies is that children with FAS often make model prisoners, Nanson said.

"In terms of the justice system handling individuals with this, one of the things they fail to understand is that FAS people do very well in structured environments," she said.

"Often people are fooled in the early stages of treatment into thinking somebody is doing really well, not realizing that they're doing really well because all the opportunities for them not to do well are taken care of in a structured program.

"There is a point where the individual with FAS falls apart again."

Another news story from Saskatoon, with a mother's reply.

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