$1 million for research project
By Julia Peterson
Earlier this month, the Government of Canada announced that they would provide nearly a million dollars of funding for a research project at the University of Regina designed to address the unmet needs of Indigenous individuals with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in the justice system. The project, officially titled “Navigator-Advocates: Integrated Supports for Justice-Involved Indigenous Youth and Adults with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder,” will be implemented over the next three years in Saskatchewan and the Yukon.
Federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale spoke at the official announcement on Sept. 6, in the University of Regina’s Research and Innovation Centre.
“Our government is working to help reverse Indigenous over-representation in Canada’s criminal justice system by supporting culturally-relevant interventions by community-based organizations,” he said. “This partnership with the University of Regina will increase FASD-affected Indigenous offenders’ level of engagement and understanding of the system and of their disability, helping reduce their contact with the criminal justice system and making our communities safer.”
Dr. Michelle Stewart, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Regina and the project lead, expanded on what she hopes the effects this project will have on the people who are able to access support in the justice system through this work.
“The overall goal is to better stabilize people in our communities so that they can have more time in our communities, of course, and ideally better justice outcomes – which means that they’re better positioned to give legal instruction, they better understand the court process as it’s unfolding, and in some ways they might better understand their own disability,” she said. “In the long term, we hope that what that translates to is people spending less time in custody and having more success in the community.”
Indigenous people and people with FASD are both overrepresented in the Canadian justice system – the most recent estimates from the Justice department suggest that Indigenous adults account for over a quarter of prison admissions each year while representing approximately 4 per cent of the adult population, and studies analyzed by the Canadian FASD network suggest that anywhere between 40 to 60 per cent of people with FASD have been incarcerated at some point in their life. In Canada, an estimated 9 infants out of every 1000 are born with FASD, a developmental disability that occurs when a fetus is exposed to alcohol.
Andrea Kotlar-Livingston, the executive director of the FASD Network of Saskatchewan, noted that many misunderstandings about FASD persist in the general consciousness, and these can be stigmatizing as well as incorrect.
“FASD can impact anybody,” she said. “One of the things we talk about is how a lot of people say that FASD is 100 per cent preventable – and in its most simplistic form, I suppose it is – but that doesn’t account for addiction and trauma. The term is social determinants of health. And there’s so many people who don’t know when they’re pregnant, and 80 per cent of the population drinks. So FASD can impact anyone, it doesn’t discriminate.”
Some of these stereotypes specifically relate to how and why a person with FASD might come in contact with the justice system. According to Stewart, moving beyond these skewed perceptions is essential to achieve true justice.
“Often, with FASD, individuals are misunderstood to be only in the justice system as offenders,” she said. “They can be there also as witnesses and victims, and if you’re having a challenge accessing the justice system, it means that we’re not having good justice outcomes for witnesses or victims of an offence as well.”
Along with the Saskatchewan Population Health Evaluation Research Unit (SPHER-U), the File Hill Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, the Regina YWCA, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Fetal Alcohol Society of the Yukon, the FASD Network of Saskatchewan is one of the partner organizations on this project. They have been working with individuals with FASD in the justice system before this research project came about, and Kotlar-Livingston says that they are eager to increase their impact by expanding their efforts with support from the Federal government.
“[This project] is going to have a huge impact, because we can work with people from when they incur charges right through until – if they serve time – they are released back into the community,” she said. “There’s not many programs that can work with people at every point in the justice system, and then also when they’re released. Sometimes people graduate out of programs, but that’s not the case with our work. We recognize that people need support throughout their lifespans. We are able to help people reintegrate into the community and find employment and housing and things like that.”
Since people with FASD can face particular challenges in their interactions with the justice system due to their disability, creating a strong system of supports and advocates can help to remedy some of the pervasive disadvantages and inequities they face.
“Some common areas where people [with FASD] can struggle with is often in the area of executive functioning,” Stewart explained. “The impairment there can often lead to challenges with planning and recall. Individuals might not remember the types of conditions they have to remain in the community, so they can have something called a breach. Individuals with FASD – like a lot of individuals in the justice system – are not having their needs met in the community, which means that we need more appropriate supports and services for individuals so that they can have better access to housing, better access to healthcare, better access to mental health supports and services in the community.”
This project is in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #34, which calls upon the government to reform the criminal justice system to better address the needs of offenders with FASD, in part by providing community, correctional, and parole resources.