Manitoba’s court designed to help offenders with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is tripling the number of hearings for adults to deal with skyrocketing demand for the unique hearings they began offering less than a year ago.
“The demand is very, very high,” said Judge Mary Kate Harvie, who’s in the FASD court and is chair of the committee that spearheaded its creation.
The court handles sentencing for offenders with FASD — a disorder affecting the brain and body caused by the fetus’s exposure to alcohol — on a range of cases from breaches to more serious matters.
“I think, generally speaking, the cases we’re seeing are some of the most challenging that are within our system,” said Harvie.
The court, the first of its kind in Canada when it launched in March, helps offenders with FASD navigate the court system and connects them with specialized help as part of their sentences.
By late October, a Manitoba Justice spokesperson said adults faced a two-month wait time before getting a date — a delay Harvie and other legal experts attributed to high demand and limited sittings.
“At first, it was a little slow, and then, whoosh, it picked up speed,” the judge said. “I think it’s confirmed the suspicions that we had that we needed something specific to address this population, that the numbers are significant and that we need to do better for this population, right across the board.”
FASD’s effects vary from mild to severe. While a minority of people have physical signs — like a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip — some also have cognitive effects, which can include poor memory or learning disabilities.
When the court launched, it heard youth proceedings every Thursday morning at the Manitoba Youth Centre, with alternating adult and youth proceedings at the Manitoba Law Courts on Thursday afternoons.
The court has now jumped from two half-days per month for adults to seven, with proceedings for a full day on three of the four Thursday sittings a month, plus a half-day. It has also added flexibility for out-of-custody youth proceedings to take place at the Manitoba Youth Centre.
‘Trying not to set them up for failure again’
It’s hard to get an exact number of how many Canadians are affected by FASD, but Health Canada estimates it’s about one per cent, based on research from the 1990s. More recent research suggests it could be higher — more like four per cent, according to the Canada Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research Network.
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The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Edmonton and area Fetal Alcohol Network Society, its stakeholders or funders.