Researchers at The University of Western Australia Law School concerned about juvenile offenders battling foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) are working with communities in Broome, Derby and Fitzroy Crossing on law reforms that will benefit offenders, the courts and government agencies delivering services.
Professor Harry Blagg, who has spent 20 years conducting high level research in Aboriginal communities across Australia, said that women’s groups have played a key role in identifying FASD as a factor in both domestic violence and juvenile crime.
“I believe Australia has had its head in the sand on an issue affecting some of our most marginalised and vulnerable people,” said Professor Blagg.
“Aboriginal women have been living with the impact of violence and alcohol for far too long, and have mobilised and are leading the fight against alcohol and violence in remote communities.
“They’ve alerted us to the devastating impacts of FASD in communities like Fitzroy Crossing where one in four children are said to be affected by a seriously underdiagnosed life-long condition that impairs learning, reasoning, development and judgement.”
Professor Blagg said a significant portion of those found to be unfit to stand trial in court from these communities are suffering from FASD.
He is working with the Law School’s Dr Tamara Tulich and law student Zoe Bush (winner of the Ciara Glennon Scholarship) on an Australian Institute of Criminology, Criminology Research Council funded project, Developing Diversionary Pathways for Indigenous Youth with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: a Three Community Study in Western Australia.
“Our legal system is based on the premise that people make rational choices and weigh up the consequence of actions – but that doesn’t apply to someone with FASD,” said Professor Blagg.
“Australia is 25 years behind Canada and the United States in screening and diagnosing children with FASD, and in finding alternatives to the criminal justice system.
“These countries offer services that simply don’t exist here. In essence, being held in Australian prisons has become the default mechanism for dealing with people with disabilities.
“We’ve been slow, particularly in WA, to consider the impact of different forms of cognitive impairment on an individual’s capacity to understand legal processes; to be able to instruct a lawyer; to understand what is happening in court; to appreciate the consequences of their actions.
“The Mentally Impaired Accused legislation needs reform and the police and courts need to recognise that these kids should be diverted from contact with the courts.”
Dr Tulich said that WA’s mentally impaired accused laws allow a person who is found unfit to stand trial because of a cognitive impairment to be indefinitely detained in a custodial facility.
She said that an inadequate legal response can increase the likelihood of a young person with FASD developing secondary disabilities.
“Secondary disabilities are social and psychological problems that develop because the primary disability – FASD – is misdiagnosed, misunderstood or inappropriately responded to, and the young person receives inadequate support,” she said.
“Secondary disabilities can be reduced by improving the responsiveness of the justice system and support services to young people with FASD.”
Professor Blagg said that UWA researchers are working with communities that want to create culturally-based models that engage with mainstream agencies, families, communities, and educational and clinical support – because young mothers on their own struggle with these children.
“Community Elders believe these juveniles should spend time on-country, getting involved in cultural programs like Fitzroy Crossing’s Yiriman Project developed by Elders from four Kimberley language groups under the auspices of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre,” he said.
“We need to create effective external scaffolding for children who just can’t manage complex social processes.”
Professor Harry Blagg (+61 8) 6488 2842 / (+61 4) 98 656 610
Dr Tamara Tulich (+61 8) 6488 4334
David Stacey (UWA Media and Public Relations Manager) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716