Jan 24, 2004

The Edmonton Sun Page: 11

Section: Editorial/Opinion Edition:


Normally, people don't mind seeing the same clients over and over again. Patricia Yuzwenko hates it. It means the system has failed.

Yuzwenko is a defence lawyer with the Edmonton youth criminal justice office. Another one of her clients, a 16-year-old car thief, is in trouble with the law again. Last time he stole a vehicle, he ended up in an open-custody group home and was doing well. Last fall, child welfare officials placed him in another group home.

Within a couple of weeks, he went AWOL with a few of the other kids in the home and stole another car. Now he's in the Edmonton Young Offender Centre.

But a short stint in the slammer isn't likely to reform this teen. His mother drank before he was born and he's got Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), which causes lifelong disabilities. Symptoms range from a stunted IQ and attention and memory problems to extreme impulsiveness and the inability to handle anger.

With their memory problems, FASD offenders have difficulty linking their punishment to the crime. To make matters worse, they typically have no empathy for their victims. "They can't learn that there are consequences to their behaviour in the justice system. It doesn't work," says Yuzwenko.

A FASD youth sentenced to community service for stealing a car is unable to connect the dots, she says. If he's told he has to meet with his probation officer, he forgets.

Prosecutors are equally as frustrated. "How do we give a sentence that means something to them?" wonders Edmonton Crown attorney Christian Lim.

He and Yuzwenko are determined to find out. They are part of a committee that has recently begun brainstorming for creative ways to deal with FASD youth who have broken the law.

Also on the committee are reps from the Edmonton police department and the Alberta Solicitor General's Department. The committee is part of a larger government-initiated justice project focusing on FASD youth and the law.

A huge percentage of young offenders are affected by FASD, an indication of the urgent need for alternative solutions, says Yuzwenko. While FASD offenders victimize people, they're also victims because they're so impressionable they can be goaded into committing crimes by pals, she adds.

FASD kids need constant supervision and a structured environment. In fact, they virtually need youth workers with them all the time, she says.

Sure, it's expensive, she concedes, but it would save money in the end.

"It's easy to look at the parents and say, 'You drank, you look after your kid,'" she says. But that's simply not realistic, she insists. "The community has to be responsible for these kids."

Edmonton neuropsychologist Valerie Massey says even if FASD offenders express remorse, it's clouded with uncertainty as to what they did wrong.

"It's really hard to remember what not to do again," she says. "They're kind of like little kids in a grown-up body."

Many FASD cases go undiagnosed, she adds. "This is a growth industry and we don't want it to be. It's the kind of trend we want to decrease. Some of these kids just make you cry."

Lim says the challenge is to address the problem in a way that will have meaning for FASD young offenders.

"We know when people are affected by alcohol in the prenatal stage, there's no point in a sentence that is not understood by the accused," he says.

"We don't want to turn a blind eye and let someone else deal with it."

Remedies could include community conferencing or other alternatives to traditional punitive sentences, he says.

"We just want a justice system that works."


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