A different approach: The struggle to deal with FASD in the justice system
Myles HImmelreich is a young man with FASD – as a young kid Myles called on every ounce of his self-control to not pull the fire alarm each time he passed by it, and each time he succeeded until one day, several students dared him and he gave in and pulled it! A dare is all it took for his fingers to find an excuse to break free of his tenuous control and pull the device reports Regina Leader post.
The other kids ran. Himmelreich was there when school staff came to investigate.
Years later and in his mid-30s, Himmelreich tells the story with a characteristic measure of self-effacing humour as he addresses a roomful of judges, lawyers and others who work in or with the justice system. Some of his stories elicit appreciative chuckles; others a silence borne of respect for the challenges he’s had to endure throughout his life.
While there is an attempt to understand — perhaps beyond anything the justice system has experienced before — a divide remains that Himmelreich, through his public speaking, is striving to bridge.
Himmelreich has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
“I didn’t fully understand the exact differences between myself and the other kids,” Himmelreich says in an interview. “But I do remember in elementary school, probably about Grade 5 is where I started thinking that I acted weird and different than the other kids and I didn’t understand why. I didn’t know why I couldn’t control the way I acted. I just did it, and then right after I did it, I would be like, ‘Why did I do that? Why would I act that way?’ ”
Himmelreich recalls being shunned not just by other kids, but by their parents, who would leave him behind for church or scouting events because he was considered “too much to deal with.”
“And so that was really difficult,” he says. “I think it was difficult for my parents, too, seeing their son being left on the porch and not being picked up to go to scouts because the parents couldn’t handle the way I was. And so the reaction from other people was very difficult because I didn’t understand why they were acting like that, and it would just make me feel very alone and isolated.”
That isolation ended when Himmelreich was 17. Having gone through school without any real friends and feeling like he didn’t fit in anywhere, he suddenly found himself surrounded by a group of people who accepted him as he was.
“They thought I was weird, they thought I was silly and immature, but they still would hang out with me as long as I showed up with a case of beer, a bag of weed, whatever it was that they could use …,” he says. “And when you haven’t been accepted and you haven’t felt like you fit in, you get to a point where you go, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes, even if I know it’s not the right thing or the best thing, even if I think and feel that you’re taking advantage of me.’ You still go and do these things because you just want to be accepted.”
Those friends later jumped him, beating him badly in a convenience store parking lot when he told them he didn’t have money for cigarettes. Twelve hours later, Himmelreich was back within their fold.
His relationships — both with peers and alcohol — would lead him, now and then, inside a justice system that many with FASD struggle to navigate.
One of the reasons Himmelreich tells his story at conferences like Regina’s recent International Training Symposium on Innovative Approaches to Justice: Where Justice and Treatment Meet is to provide others with a view into the lives of those who live with FASD — a disorder that is disproportionately represented among jail populations, according to those working in the field.
Cheryl Charron, manager of FASD Services with the Regina Community Clinic, notes 2014 information suggests there are about 55,000 people in Saskatchewan affected by prenatal alcohol exposure. And, she says, the numbers are growing worldwide.
“This isn’t going away,” she says.
One of the roadblocks continues to be the blame and stigma that goes along with a diagnosis. Because the disorder is the result of a woman’s drinking while pregnant, mothers of children born with FASD can be too ashamed to provide the information that can lead to a diagnosis.
Charron says that blame is misplaced. While a common misconception is that this disorder only happens to alcoholics from impoverished backgrounds, two significant risk groups are actually post-secondary students and professional women. In both cases, women not planning a pregnancy can easily go some time before realizing they are pregnant — during which time they’ve had a few social drinks on weekends or some wine after work. And any amount of alcohol during pregnancy creates a risk for FASD.
ffected children exhibit a wide range of symptoms, which might include impulsiveness, a lack of understanding of boundaries and consequences, a disconnect between chronological and developmental age, and memory problems. While some possess physical features, Charron notes in many cases FASD is an invisible disability.
Therein lies one of the problems faced by those in the justice system when faced with an accused with FASD: They might not know the person has it.
Regina lawyer Christina Skibinsky, who has represented a number of clients with FASD, says unexplainable behaviour, odd crimes, a lengthy record for breaches, and an overly agreeable attitude can all be possible clues.
“Sometimes (it’s) unexplainable behaviour, such as a real willingness to plead guilty without the client turning their mind to other options,” she says.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Edmonton and Area Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Network.