Prisons’ foetal alcohol disorder blind spot

Of the more than 12,000 people in custody in NSW, a large proportion have varying degrees of intellectual disability and/or cognitive impairment.
Of the more than 12,000 people in custody in NSW, a large proportion have varying degrees of intellectual disability and/or cognitive impairment.

THE NSW prison system admits it does not diagnose foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in either the adult or juvenile justice system.

A spokesperson for said Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Network (JH&FMHN) works closely with Juvenile Justice NSW (JJ) and Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) to meet the care needs of adults and young people in custody with cognitive impairment.

Of the more than 12,000 people in custody in NSW, a large proportion have varying degrees of intellectual disability and/or cognitive impairment, however, the network does not report specifically on rates of FASD diagnoses.

"In the adult custodial setting, the network delivers FASD education to clinicians including advice from external experts in FASD," the spokesperson said.

"More broadly, those with actual or suspected cognitive impairment are assessed by CSNSW psychologists, and where appropriate, advice on management and placement in specialist units is coordinated by CSNSW State Disability Services.

"Given the relatively short length of stay of young people in custody, FASD testing is uncommon, however, if a young person has characteristics suggestive of FASD the treating JH&FMHN doctor may order such testing."

JH&FMHN also works closely with pregnant women in custody to provide information on the harms associated with alcohol consumption during pregnancy, including FASD, as well as assessment and support from drug and alcohol clinicians.

Pregnant women are also provided with post-release support and linkage with drugs in pregnancy services, antenatal care, and other health and welfare services in the community. The CEO of the National Organisation of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (NOFASD) Australia, Vicki Russell, said the disorder, brain damage in children caused by their mothers drinking alcohol while pregnant, was largely misunderstood in the community.

She said people with FASD often went undiagnosed, becoming "revolving door" cases in the criminal justice system.

Ms Russell said the key to diagnosing the problem was recognising a pattern of behaviour.

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