By Mary Agnes Welch, Winnipeg Free Press, November 4, 2011 10:05 AM
WINNIPEG — A Winnipeg doctor says he hopes all inmates will be screened for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder as a matter of course within the next five years, just in time for an expected spike in the country’s prison population.
Dr. Albert Chudley, a top FASD expert, says a screening checklist first pioneered several years ago in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Institution is about to be tested again at an unnamed women’s prison in Eastern Canada. It’s already being evaluated at a prison in the Yukon.
If the tool works, if it helps pick out inmates who may suffer from FASD, Chudley hopes it will become standard procedure in every prison in the country in the next few years.
Speaking this week at a meeting of the Manitoba Criminal Justice Association, Chudley said proper screening could help reduce the number of repeat offenders by getting people with FASD the help they need before and after they’re incarcerated.
It could finally count the number of people in prison with FASD. So far, researchers only have hints.
Chudley’s research at Stony Mountain estimated that as many as 17 per cent of inmates have some level of brain damage caused by alcohol exposure in the womb. That research helped validate a short FASD checklist prison staff can use to find out about an inmate’s behavioural patterns, history and the possibility his mother drank while pregnant. Most of the inmates screened by the checklist were ultimately diagnosed with FASD.
Thanks to new federal crime legislation, which includes mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences, prisons and jails across Canada are expected to get even more crowded than they already are.
Chudley, along with provincial court Judge Mary Kate Harvie, told the group that crime and FASD are inextricably linked, and that the court and prison systems must start responding better.
Chudley, the head of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s genetics and metabolism program and a University of Manitoba professor, said people with FASD are easily led, can’t see the consequences of their actions and are often victimized.
“They do the crime to please others, not necessarily themselves, and then they get tagged with it,” said Chudley. Harvie has championed a relatively new court program in Manitoba that helps young offenders get an FASD diagnosis while in jail and then helps judges tailor a sentence to their disability.
So far, the program has assessed 133 offenders and diagnosed 94 with some form of FASD. Among the most recent 30 youths who were diagnosed, more than 70 per cent had IQs lower than 70, which means they have mild or moderate cognitive impairments.