FASD & the Justice System

“A network of community support outside of jail is needed, as without it persons with FAS will not be able to navigate normal societal rules. Persons with FAS do best with structure, black and white rules and consistency - knowledgeable persons in this field refer to the concept of the ‘external brain’. (Byrne, 2002, p. 4).

Just as individuals with FASD require support and accommodation to adjust and function effectively within correctional institutions, it follows that the same principles of intervention - structure, consistency, brevity, variety, and persistence – are necessary for successful community reintegration.

Community release can be a stressful time for offenders.  Individuals are often uncertain as to where they will live; what the people living and working there will be like; what are the rules there; how much money will they have to live on; and so on.  Engaging in pre-release planning to discover and answer these questions is crucial to facilitating the transition from institution to community.  Connecting the individual with the community correctional professional(s) assigned to supervise their release prior to leaving the institution may help reduce the anxiety associated with venturing into the unknown.  These community correctional professionals (most often parole officers or probation officers), like their institutional counterparts, should have a good understanding of the challenges and characteristics associated with FASD as well as the recommended interventions and strategies. 

The role of the community parole or probation officer is especially important in the first weeks and months of the release of an individual with FASD.  Relationship-building and close monitoring is crucial to identify and address any emerging issues of concern quickly.  The community parole or probation officer serves as the FASD-affected individual’s advocate; connecting the individual with safe and affordable housing, with employment or other meaningful and structured activity, to an individual or group that will provide support on an on-going basis.

Anthony P. Wartnik (2007, p. 81)), a retired judge, elaborates on the concept of the “external brain” referenced above and provides the following suggestions for individuals living with FASD who are being released to their community:

  1. Living in a group home or facility with an established regiment (when to get up, eat, etc.).
  2. A very structured, even part time job. Indeed one of the values of even part time employment is that it gives someone with a FASD something regularized that he or she needs to do every day.
  3. A daily schedule created in collaboration with the defendant and overseen by a parent, advocate, sponsor, or other party
  4. Involvement in frequently scheduled treatment programs such as classes in anger management, sexual deviancy treatment, drug testing, drug treatment, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, family counselling, group therapy and recreational groups.

Mr. Wartnik goes on to encourage probation/parole officers to consider the impact of the disorder in the event that an individual with FASD violates the conditions of their release.  He notes that many of the characteristics associated with FASD – poor memory, intense emotional reactions and mood swings, difficulty managing stress – may result in behaviours that could be considered an indication of risk to re-offend.  Rather than “over-reacting” to what are actually symptoms of the disorder, Mr. Wartnik recommends pulling together a team or circle of support to help the individual impacted by FASD better manage his or her behaviours.

Finally, some of the recommendations promoted by Schacht and LaDue (2003) may contribute to ensuring continuity of care and support in the community:

  • Working out an agreement for money management
  • Securing safe, affordable housing or a subsidized residential placement
  • Providing in-home support to help the individual live as independently as possible
  • Teaching and modelling parenting skills if the individual has children
  • Referring the individual for specialized vocational training and/or job placements
  • Ensuring medical care
  • Arranging for a case manager to help the individual with FASD and their families access necessary services
  • Organizing drug and alcohol treatment for the individual, if needed
  • Serving as an advocate to ensure recommendations are implemented
  • Acknowledging the individual’s limitations, strengths and skills
  • Accepting  the FASD-impacted individual’s “world”