Yukon study finds high levels of FASD in the justice system

A Yukon study has found people in the territory's justice system are much more likely to have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder than the general population.

A Yukon study has found people in the territory’s justice system are much more likely to have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder than the general population.

Health Canada estimates about one per cent of Canadians have the disability. According to preliminary findings of a Department of Justice study, the prevalence within the Yukon justice system is about 17.5 per cent.

FASD is a disability caused when a mother consumes alcohol during pregnancy. People with FASD can have developmental disabilities, problems with memory, and difficulty with sequencing events and understanding consequences.

Advocates have long suggested that people with FASD are more likely to end up in front of a judge, but the work by the Justice Department is a rare source of quantifiable Canadian data.

“Of course it’s always difficult to hear that kind of a number and to see that level of disability overrepresented in a justice-based setting,” said lead researcher Dr. Kaitlyn McLachlan.

“But I’m pleased that we now have that data because it actually empowers us to understand the nature of the problem better, to be able to make a change.”

Over 18 months between 2014 and 2015, a team including a doctor and a psychologist met with about 80 adults between the ages of 18 and 40. Participants all lived in Whitehorse either in custody at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre or outside of jail but under a probation order, for example.

Participants got a medical evaluation, an assessment by the psychologist and completed an interview about their background. That took about two business days.

Staff looked at medical records and interviewed family members when possible before coming to a conclusion, McLachlan said.

Wenda Bradley often gets an up-close view of how FASD can intersect with the courts.

As executive director of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Society Yukon she has many clients who have been involved with the justice system.

She said she expected the Justice Department’s findings to be much higher.

“Based on the work that we do, the group that we have that we work intensely with, we have about a 34 per cent rate involvement with the justice system,” she said.

In order to conclude someone had FASD, the team working for the Justice Department had to have strong evidence of drinking during pregnancy.

That’s not always easy to come by and that makes it hard to diagnose people, Bradley said.

“With an adult population that proof can be lost or not known if the person has been adopted into a family and/or (the issue is) not wanted to be talked about.”

Bradley said people with FASD frequently end up in court on charges like parole violations because they either can’t remember or struggle to follow the conditions a judge had put in place.

For some people the original charge could have happened 13 years ago, but they’ll still be involved with the justice system because they keep breaching their conditions, she said.

Bradley said there needs to be more one-on-one support for people with FASD. That includes having someone to help with complex tasks like finances, securing safe housing and navigating problems with the justice system -“and to do that as soon as possible because folks keep going in and out of the system and that’s not healthy, emotionally or physically, for people to be doing that.”

Reports on FASD and the justice system are few and far between. In 2006-2007 a study by Corrections Canada found a 10 per cent rate in federally sentenced men.

McLachlan said the team took special care to make sure people who took part in the Yukon study benefitted after it was over.

Each participant was given a four to five page report that broke down, in plain language, details of their strengths and weaknesses. They were referred to other services if the team thought that might help.

The feedback was something “that they could take with them to share with a service provider or family member to help understand them better,” she said.

A member of the staff also stayed on for an extra six months after the interviews were over so participants would have someone to call if they had questions or needed information repeated.

“Sometimes it’s a lot of information to take in when you’re hearing information about the areas that you’re struggling in or needs that you might have,” McLachlan said.

A final report on the study will be completed in the next six to eight months. That will include a more detailed breakdown of the findings for all the people who participated, not just those with FASD.

“Preliminary evaluation of the data also suggests significant rates of cognitive impairment, addiction and mental health difficulties,” according to a department press release.

The final report will also delve into more specifics about which areas, like focus or memory, the group struggles with most.

“As we analyze all the information now – how are they doing, where are their strengths, where are their areas of more need at a more detailed level – that’s actually what lets us know how they’re doing and what kind of things they might benefit from,” McLachlan said.

There’s no word on exactly what changes might come out of this study.

The Department of Justice says it’s waiting for all the data to be compiled before it starts working on any big policy shift.

As it stands, all correctional officers working at the jail take a course on FASD as part of their basic training. There’s also someone on staff who can train jail case workers on how to work with people with FASD.

The department hasn’t said how many people have actually taken that training.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing contingent of people who argue that FASD should be taken into consideration by judges when sentencing an offender.

It’s something the Canadian Bar Association has spent years calling for. Yukon’s former MP Ryan Leef tabled a private member’s bill in 2014 that would have made changes to the Canadian Criminal Code, but he later withdrew the bill, saying there wasn’t enough time for it to become law before the last election.

Current MP Larry Bagnell has tabled a very similar private member’s bill since taking over the job.

Unlike Leef, who was stuck at the 130th position to have his bill heard, Bagnell drew position 34.

He tabled his bill in February but no date has been set for when it might come up for second reading.

Contact Ashley Joannou at