Some of the boys and girls aged from 10 to 17 who end up at the State's only juvenile detention centre at Banksia Hill may have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) - and researchers have been awarded a grant to find out.
Winthrop Research Professor Carol Bower of The University of Western Australia's Centre for Child Health Research at the Telethon Kids Institute is leading a team who are about to develop a FASD screening test, thanks to a National Health and Medical Research Council grant of almost $1.5million.
Professor Bower said FASD was caused by the fetus being exposed to alcohol during pregnancy and at its worst, caused a range of neurological disabilities that lead to problems with development, learning and behaviour. These problems can affect the child's ability to relate cause and effect and make the child less able to make judgements and to be easily led. Some people with FASD also had typical facial features and, more rarely, heart and kidney birth defects.
"Ideally, we would like to prevent FASD," she said. "The next best scenario would be to identify it as soon as possible so that, with early management, children with the condition never reached the justice system, or, less ideally, identify them as soon as they make contact with the system.
"Because research into FASD is new in Australia, we're going to screen young people already in detention and then modify the screening test for use much earlier in their contact with the justice system. We want to prevent children with FASD from going into detention, and prison as adults. Alternative sentencing strategies for them, such as community supervision, is thought to be a much better option than being incarcerated."
Professor Bower said studies from North America suggested youths with FASD were 19 times more likely to be imprisoned than youths without the condition and around 60 per cent of people with FASD over 12 had been charged with or convicted of a criminal offence.
"While there are no reliable data in Australia, there is a growing level of community and professional concern about the impact of FASD on people in the justice system. Aboriginal leaders are especially concerned as 70 per cent of young people in detention in WA are Aboriginal."
Winthrop Research Professor Carol Bower (UWA Centre for Child Health Research, Telethon Kids Institute) (+61 8) 9489 7751
Dr Rochelle Watkins (UWA Centre for Child Health Research, Telethon Kids Institute)
Tammy Gibbs (Telethon Kids Institute) (+61 8) 9489 7963 / (+61 4) 08 946 698
David Stacey (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716