Although a range of complex factors contribute to high incarceration rates amongst Indigenous youth in Australia, the impact of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) remains relatively unknown to the public.
The Northern Territory’s Royal Commission into Juvenile Justice recently acknowledged that FASD is a major contributing factor to offending conduct amongst youths in that jurisdiction and indeed throughout the nation, calling for initiatives which seek to address the problem.
What is FASD
According to a 2012 Parliamentary Inquiry, FASD is the most significant cause of non-genetic brain damage amongst newborns in Australia.
Those who suffer from FASD have an “observable abnormality in the structure and size of the brain; that is, a physical condition which causes a change in function”.
FASD is caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. If a woman does not consume alcohol during pregnancy, the foetus is simply not at risk of developing abnormalities that are peculiar to the condition. The same Inquiry noted that FASD is totally preventable and that, despite the dangers, over 60 percent of women in Australia continue to consume alcohol whilst pregnant.
Estimates of FASD in non-Indigenous youth in Australia range from 0.14% to 1.7%, whilst rates of up to 12% are estimated in Indigenous communities – including the Fitzroy Crossing in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia.
FASD and offending
Professor John Boulton, Paediatrician and Emeritus Professor at the University of Newcastle, advised the Commission that FASD is associated with numerous risk factors of offending, including alcohol abuse and depression. He said 80% of affected adults have difficulty with employment, 40% spent time in prison and sufferers are at risk of self-harm and suicide.
In terms of the effect on youth crime, US studies have found that 60% of FASD-affected children over the age of 12 engaged in escalating criminal behaviour. Canadian research indicates sufferers are 19 times more likely to be arrested than their peers.
Overall, studies have linked FASD to a “profound level of social morbidity in terms of violence, engagement in the justice system, depression, suicidal thoughts, suicide, very low chance of meaningful occupation and a very high risk of being in prison as adults, requiring mental institutions and support with drug addiction.”
Professor Boulton says the lifelong cost of treating the condition can reach into the millions of dollars for a single sufferer.
He says there only needs to be 1-2% of the total population to be affected with FASD to create a cost burden to the community in the tens of millions of dollars.
Catching up with other countries
The same Parliamentary Inquiry found that Australia lags well behind other developed nations in tackling FASD.
In Canada and the US, for example, initiatives have been operating since the early 1990s, with improved public awareness campaigns, more accurate diagnoses and better treatment by health care professionals.
The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) is disappointed that there have been a “government policy void” in Australia for the past two decades. Professor Boulton believes the national disability insurance scheme’s recognition of the disorder would be a “hugely positive step”.
Further positive measures might include the implementation of behavioural support programs in schools, as well as more efficient diagnostic processes. There are currently significant waiting times for appointments to diagnose the condition, and existing methods require a three to four hour assessment.
Alternatives to prison
The Parliament Inquiry also identified “a great need for diversion programs which redirect individuals who come in contact with the criminal justice system”.
While there is no medical ‘cure’ for FASD, the current vacuum in education, diagnosis and treatment is proving to be costly for both sufferers and the community.