Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It need not be a life sentence

Once the worst of car thieves, Ryan made a U-turn

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"Stolen car plows into police officer," the Free Press headline screamed April 29, 2008.

We print headlines like that all too often.

A chronic car thief steals an SUV, crashes it in the North End and injures an officer or a bystander.

This time the car thief was Ryan Twohearts, a bored teen who barely went to school, did his fair share of drinking and partying and came from a neglectful home. Twohearts started stealing cars at 12 or 13 and racked up 10 convictions before he found himself in a special program for car thieves at New Directions.

It was around that time he also found out he had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

"I thought of the consequences that are coming up and I kind of switched around in a dead stop," said Twohearts, who speaks solemnly and carefully but is quick to laugh when ribbed. "I saw the big picture of stealing cars."

Liz Wolff, a program manager at New Directions, estimates about 40 per cent of the high-level car thieves she sees have some form of fetal alcohol effects -- from severe cognitive impairments to less serious behavioural problems.

Those figures should be no surprise. Two of the hallmarks of FASD make kids particularly prone to crime. They have trouble thinking ahead and imagining the consequences of their actions, such as ending up back at the Manitoba Youth Centre, or worse, hurting someone or themselves.

People with FASD are easily led. They tend to be vulnerable to dumb ideas and take the blame when things go bad. One local advocate for adults with FASD said she is frequently amazed how quickly people with brain damage from fetal alcohol exposure get sucked into street life. Winnipeg judges have marvelled at how some young criminals can hot-wire an Escalade in 30 seconds flat but can't tell time.

But FASD isn't an excuse for crime, and it isn't a life sentence.

Now 18, Twohearts has left car theft behind and has a job he loves, delivering the Free Press to neighbourhood depots at midnight and new clothes to stores such as Laura and Danier Leather during the day. His boss at Tec Trucking Services says Twohearts is a terrific worker -- almost too terrific. He's charmed all the ladies in the shops and squeezes in odd jobs for them, like hauling out the garbage. His boss would love to promote Twohearts from swamper to driver as soon as he can get a driver's licence.

"I really like working lots. It's just the mentality I've got for myself," he said. "I gotta be active. I'm always hands-on."

Twohearts was diagnosed with FASD while in jail at the Manitoba Youth Centre, which allowed him to get specialized, one-on-one help with reading, resumé-writing and job skills at New Directions, which has a menu of programs for young offenders and kids with FASD.

The number of people with FASD involved in crime is staggering.

One study done in British Columbia in 1999 found 23 per cent of youth in custody who were remanded for a psychiatric assessment had FASD.

Another study done in Washington State suggested about 60 per cent of youth and adults with FASD get into some trouble with the law during their lifetime.

And several years ago, researchers including local FASD doctor Albert Chudley, put 91 inmates at Stony Mountain prison through a battery of tests and found at least 10 per cent had FASD and another 18 per cent had suspected but unconfirmed cases. That's a rate of FASD at least 10 times higher than in the mainstream population.

For many experts, including Manitoba's top RCMP officer, the statistics suggest crime rates could be dramatically curbed if people with FASD got the right help early on or if FASD could be prevented in the first place.

"It's a huge problem," said Assistant Commissioner Bill Robinson, who first started thinking about FASD when he was a young officer working in Alberta and the Yukon.

"If the science is correct, and I believe it to be and I've experienced it myself, that oftentimes FASD children lack significant understanding of consequences, I can't help but think that crime would drop."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2011 H4

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