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Treat, don't jail, FASD kids: poll

Most Manitobans support expansions of programs

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Most Manitobans support expanding programs that treat young criminals suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder instead of locking them up.

In a Probe Research poll conducted exclusively for the Winnipeg Free Press, 78 per cent of Manitobans surveyed thought a small court program for young offenders with FASD ought to get a funding boost.

"There's a sense among the public that perhaps this is a better way to deal with people with FASD, better or more effective than simply sentencing them," said Curtis Brown, Probe's research associate.

The Youth Justice Program is a little-known project that gives chronic offenders the chance to get an official medical diagnosis of FASD.

Then staff set up an intensive monitoring and social services plan for judges to mandate instead of ordering long probations or jail sentences offenders may not have the cognitive capacity to follow or learn from.

Offenders are given help with addictions, housing, school, counselling, and they get a little latitude for minor breaches of their release conditions, such as curfew times.

Last April, the province came under fire for failing to crack down on high-risk young offenders who breached their conditions.

Until now, the Youth Justice Program has flown largely under the radar, largely because it runs counter to the recent wave of tough-on-crime rhetoric.

Already, 87 young offenders have gone through the program. Another 300 or so are on the referral list. Judges, lawyers and FASD experts say the program is helping a fraction of the kids it could.

Only two offenders a month can get an FASD diagnosis that then makes them eligible for intensive monitoring and treatment, and a sentence that reflects their disability.

And the program is still confined mostly to Winnipeg, in part because social services for people with FASD are scarce outside the Perimeter.

The province says it expanded funding for the program in 2008 to include The Pas, and is in talks with the federal government to broaden the program even more.

"We're willing to work in real time on this issue," said Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau.

One in 100 people have some form of brain damage caused by mothers who drink while pregnant, and that's likely a too-conservative estimate. FASD is virtually invisible and mired in stigma. The job world, schools and the criminal justice system are almost perfectly designed for people with FASD to fail. The birth defect costs Canadians at least $5.3 billion a year.

The Free Press/Probe Research poll also found Manitobans are divided on whether solving the FASD epidemic would lead to a drop in crime. Only about a third of Manitobans believe people with FASD are more likely to commit crimes or that curbing FASD would directly reduce the province's high crime rate.

That's despite research that suggests as many as 60 per cent of FASD-sufferers get into trouble with the law. One study at Manitoba's Stony Mountain Institution suggested more than a quarter of all inmates had or likely had FASD.


The questions


I'd like to read you a list of statements that may or may not describe your understanding of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. For each statement I read, tell me if you agree or disagree by using a five-point scale. Here, a one means you strongly disagree and a five means you strongly agree. If you are not sure or do not know, just say so.


People with FASD are more likely to commit crimes


Strongly agree -- 20 per cent

Moderately agree -- 15 per cent

Moderately disagree -- 17 per cent

Strongly disagree -- 15 per cent

Neutral/don't know -- 33 per cent


Dealing with the problem of FASD would directly reduce our crime rate


Strongly agree -- 23 per cent

Moderately agree -- 16 per cent

Moderately disagree -- 14 per cent

Strongly disagree -- 13 per cent

Neutral/don't know -- 34 per cent

-- Poll was conducted by Probe Research using a random telephone sample of 1,002 Manitobans between Sept. 16 and Sept. 30, 2010. It is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The followup


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is a birth defect caused when a woman consumes alcohol while pregnant. Some of the symptoms of FASD include impulsive behaviour and the inability of those with the affliction to understand the consequences of their actions. Today in Manitoba, there's a court program for young offenders who have been diagnosed with FASD, This program holds offenders responsible for their actions, but the effects of FASD are taken into account before and after an offender is sentenced and these individuals are given appropriate treatment. Right now, this program has more participants than it can handle. Given what I have told you and anything else you might know about this issue, do you personally support or oppose the provincial government devoting more funds to this court program?

Strongly support -- 45 per cent

Moderately support -- 33 per cent

Moderately oppose -- eight per cent

Strongly oppose -- seven per cent

Not sure -- seven per cent

-- This question was asked as part of Probe Research's omnibus poll in early December 2010. Just over 1,000 Manitobans were surveyed and results are considered accurate 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.



With the help of a research grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Winnipeg Free Press has spent the last several months looking into the FASD epidemic. To read past stories in the series, see videos and interactive elements, visit www.winnipegfreepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2011 A3

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