Australia – Link between Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and youth crime sparks calls for change

By Marian Faa

Silhouette image of mother and adult son sitting on park bench with sun and palm trees in background.
Anne Russell says her son’s traumatic experience in prison could have been avoided if there had been more awareness about his disability.(ABC Far North: Marian Faa)

Anne Russell thought it was safe to drink alcohol while pregnant with her son, Seth, but her actions led to him being born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) — a condition she believes pushed him into the criminal justice system.

Key points:

  • Experts are calling for all children in Australia’s criminal justice system to be assessed for FASD
  • It is believed up to 40 per cent of inmates in Australian prisons may have the disability, but most are undiagnosed
  • A federal inquiry into FASD support, prevention and diagnosis is due to release its findings next month

Ms Russell does not know what happened to her son in prison, but she says he has never been the same since.

Seth*, now 37, does not talk about the experience — in fact, he doesn’t talk much at all.

“He stays in his caravan 24/7,” Ms Russell said.

“He doesn’t come out, he doesn’t socialise.

“That was basically the end of him being able to live a relatively normal life.”

FASD is a condition that impairs brain and organ development when babies are exposed to alcohol before birth.

A woman and a man sitting on a park bench.
Anne Russell worries about her son Seth, who spends most of his time in his caravan.(ABC Far North: Marian Faa)

Calls for change

Research on rates of FASD in Australian prisons is extremely scant, but experts believe it could be as high as 40 per cent.

The only Australian study — conducted by the Telethon Institute in 2018 — found 36 per cent of children in a Western Australian youth detention centre had FASD.

Only two of them had been previously diagnosed.

A woman looking at old printed photos of toddler.
Anne Russell still grapples with the past.(ABC Far North: Marian Faa)

The fear that many more children have the condition but are undiagnosed has sparked calls for sweeping changes to Australia’s criminal justice system.

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