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Manitoba increases eligibility age for fetal alcohol justice program

Monday, October 05, 2020 @ 12:17 PM | By Terry Davidson


Praise is being given to Manitoba’s government for expanding a specialized justice program to include young adult offenders with fetal alcohol disorders.

On Sept. 30, the province announced the launch of a three-year pilot project that will provide assessments and diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in offenders between the ages of 18 and 25.

Until now, these services were provided to those 17 and younger.

The pilot is patterned after the existing FASD Justice Program, which was spearheaded by the provincial court of Manitoba and acts as a conduit between the offender and the courts, probation officials and various community supports.

Last year, a special sentencing court was created for those offenders diagnosed with the condition.

The court handles offenders who have entered a guilty plea or have been convicted following a trial. Legal counsel can request that matters be sent to the new court and an offender’s FASD diagnoses would be filed to the judge in advance of a sentencing hearing. There, consideration is given as to whether there is a connection between the offender’s condition and the crimes committed.

Until now, the program would cover youth and adults up until age 25, but only if they had been diagnosed before turning 18. It would also arrange diagnoses for those under 18.

Lori Van Dongen, Smith Corona Van Dongen & Cook

Winnipeg defence lawyer Lori Van Dongen, who has dealt with her share of clients with FASD, said the move to provide diagnostic assessments to this older group will mean needed supports and consideration for a vulnerable group that had previously been shut out.

“Starting at this point, with 18 to 25, that really is, in terms of the justice system in general, a really key age group because that’s the age group that you are turning from youth to adult. That is an intervention … period we can really work with,” said Van Dongen, a partner with Smith Corona Van Dongen & Cook.

Health Canada calls FASD “an umbrella term used to describe the range of disabilities and diagnoses” that could result in children of mothers who drink alcohol while pregnant.

“Those who live with FASD may have mild to very severe problems with their health,” it states. “They may have delays in their development, intellectual problems and problems in their social lives.”

Symptoms include learning disabilities, an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions, obsessive-compulsive disorders, a lack of reasoning and difficulties in handling money, remembering appointments, holding a job and carrying out everyday tasks, such as buying food.

Van Dongen went on to say that while it would be great to have no age cutoff for the program, such a thing right now could be overwhelming.

She also pointed to the progress of the government’s FASD program, how it started in 2004 with an age cutoff of 12 and eventually raised the ceiling to those 17 and under.

“I think in an ideal world, to not have any age cutoff would be amazing; to have the ability to assist everyone who needs that assistance would be ideal,” she said. “Now, that said, just as we had to do [all those years ago], you have to start somewhere, and starting somewhere allows you to start on the path towards the goal you need to meet. … To say at this point you’re opening it up to everyone, it’s too big right now. So, this is the next door to opening the step to ideally where we’d like to be. … When you take the steps and say, OK, we know for sure there is a need for 18 to 25, let’s start with that.”

Van Dongen said the expansion of the program will be of specific benefit to Manitoba’s large First Nations population.

“I think there is going to be a specific benefit to First Nations, Indigenous individuals simply because … there is an over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system. So, just because there already is an over-representation, this is directly going to affect them and directly benefit them because there are those particular issues in that particular community, so it’s another way to be able to … address the specific needs of that community.”

Provincial court Justice Mary Kate Harvie is one of the judges presiding over the FASD sentencing court. She says diagnostics for those 18 and over has been a challenge, generally, in her province.   

“In Manitoba, there has been little if any access to diagnosis beyond age 18, whether you’re in or out of the justice program. What this has done is … allow us to provide some access to diagnosis to this group that is over 18. We thought we would target, for the proposes of the pilot project, we would target an age group because it would give as a workable, statistical group to work with. … I think a significant percentage of the population within the justice system falls into that 18 to 25-year-old category. As a start, we’re starting with that age group. We want to assess it as we go along; we want to see what we learn from all of this. And I’m hopeful … that the expansion will show us where the supports we want to put in place really have the greatest impact.”

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily, please contact Terry Davidson at t.davidson@lexisnexis.ca or call 905-415-5899.