OTTAWA — If you’re a teenager in Manitoba with FASD and you get in trouble with the law, there is one person you want in your corner.
Corey La Berge.
The 41-year-old lawyer has made it his life's work to get the system to understand traditional punishments and law and order policies are not built for kids whose brains do not work the way we expect them to.
"What do you call punishing someone for failing to meet impossible expectations?" La Berge says. "I call it abuse."
La Berge became drawn to working with people with FASD while completing his masters degree in social-cultural anthropology. His thesis dealt with adults with FASD.
"Once I became involved and I met people, met families, met individuals with FASD, I couldn't help but be drawn in," La Berge said.
So he went to law school and has spent the last 15 years immersed in the world of FASD.
He is now in the midst of a project with Legal Aid Manitoba trying to get the justice system in Manitoba, every time a client comes through the door, to think about whether that person might have FASD and then accommodate that disability at every step.
It might mean setting more realistic bail conditions, ensuring the child understands at every step what is going on in court and trying to put in place community programs, mental health treatment, education supports and a family living situation where the child can thrive.
Often kids get into trouble in the first place because we expect them to behave as if they don't have an alcohol-damaged brain.
They become entrenched in a vicious circle of bail hearings, breaching bail conditions, repeated offences and a life spent in and out of detention centres.
Most lawyers don't have training in FASD -- it is not, for example, included in the curriculum at the law school at the University of Manitoba, said La Berge.
A child with FASD, says La Berge, would simply not be capable of following a strict curfew as a bail condition. They most often don't have the same ability to understand time as someone without an alcohol-damaged brain.
Or they have associated mental health problems that compound their behaviour.
And the system shows them no compassion.
He gives, as a perfect example, the case of a 17-year-old girl with FASD and an IQ below 70. She had been sexually and physically abused most of her life. She was so suicidal her social worker ensured her foster placement was nowhere near a river so she couldn't try to jump off a bridge.
She used drugs and ended up getting arrested. Out on probation, she was told she couldn't take any drugs.
But she got a hold of a package of sleeping pills and took them all, trying to end her life.
Instead of admitting her to a psychiatric ward, the police took her to jail.
While at the Manitoba Youth Centre she ended up shackled to a bed because she was so mentally ill she began beating her head against a concrete wall.
When she was returned to court she sat listening as the judge, police, lawyers and others talked about her situation.
The judge determined her fate and asked if she had anything to say.
She looked at up him and shrugged.
"I don't know what's going on," she said.
And the cycle began again.
Q + A with Corey La Berge
On the biggest challenges of FASD. . .
A: The biggest challenge would be not recognizing the individual has a disability. That the individual may not be aware they have a disability. On top of that the people in their lives, their families, their friends, professionals working with them, are also not aware of the fact they have a disability and (are) sort of looking at their behaviours as flowing from other issues, whether it’s being difficult to work with, attitude, personality, as opposed to brain differences that are resulting in behavioural differences.
On the justice system accommodating people with FASD...
A: If you look at principles of sentencing you are supposed to let the punishment fit the crime. You want to look at the moral culpability of the accused. How morally responsible are they? Clearly if I do something, if I steal a candy bar from the store, I'm a 41-year- old lawyer. It's very different than my five-year-old stealing a chocolate bar from a store. Someone with brain differences, and a disability like this, their moral culpability is different than that of myself or my five-year-old.
We need to be aware of their capacity to behave in a particular environment. And how to respond to that.
If you're looking at wanting to deter a person from offending in the future, if you're wanting to look at imposing meaningful consequences, if you're wanting to rehabilitate that individual so they can be more successful in the community, you have to understand the disability behind their behaviour.
On stopping the crush of kids with FASD ending up in trouble with the law. . .
We're not going to stop the number of children who are coming into the system. The number of children being recognized as having FASD is not going down. These children are going to keep coming into the system. By punishing them, by coming down with a hammer heavy is not going to stop the kids who are 11 and 10 right now from coming into the system when they are 12 and 13.
Deterrence is not the best, it's not the most effective method of dealing with this population of young offenders.
We need to create environments where they can be successful, where they're not getting into trouble, rather than allowing them to flounder in an environment where we know they can't be successful and then punish them for that.
Unless we want to warehouse people and we don't care about costs to the community, costs to them, it just doesn't make any sense to lock them up and keep locking them up and ignore the reasons why they're getting into trouble in the first place.