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Respect for children's rights and health needs - the key to youth justice reform

Dr Meg Perkins -

I recently attended the CanFASD research network conference in Canada. One of the presenters was talking about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) and, in particular General Comment No. 24 on Child Rights in systems of Child Justice.

In New Brunswick, a province of Canada, in keeping with the UN CRC, they insist that alternatives to prosecution be found for young people with developmental delays or neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

June Oscar, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, has noted the high rate of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in Aboriginal communities due to the link between intergenerational trauma and addiction.

We also know, due to a study published in the British Medical Journal, that there is a high rate of neurodevelopmental disorder in detainees at Banksia Hill Youth Detention Centre in Perth; 36 per cent fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, 65 per cent neurodevelopmental disorder, and 89 per cent at least one severe impairment.

The bottom line is that young people with severe brain dysfunction are being incarcerated as punishment for behaviour related to their disabilities, and then further punished as "management" of their challenging behaviours in custody; sent to Unit 18 in the adult prison and locked up alone for up to 22 hours a day.

Young people with brain-based disabilities should not be involved in the justice system at all. Their behaviour is not so much a choice as a reaction to their environment and they do not have the moral culpability of a person with a healthy functional brain.

We need to pay attention to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and divert young people with brain-based disabilities into preventative programs, at the first sign of what would be considered offending behaviour. Your article which mentioned "a glimmer of hope" is probably optimistic - a young person living with FASD will need very substantial support if he is to avoid breaching his conditions of release.

We would have more success if we had intervened before he had ever been incarcerated.

Dr Meg Perkins PhD BA Hons (Clinical Psychology) MAPS

Tweed Coast Psychology and Educational Programs

First Stop FASD Consultancy (Brain and Behaviour)

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