Australia

Call to 'do better' to help detained youth

Researchers have uncovered unprecedented levels of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and severe cognitive delays among incarcerated young Australians.

Australia can do better to help young people in detention with severe neurological impairments, Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Dr Michael Gannon says.

A Telethon Kids Institute study, published on Wednesday, found nine in 10 youth at the Banksia Hill Detention Centre in WA had at least one form of neurodevelopmental impairment.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) was detected in one third of the youth at the detention facility.

The "unprecedented" levels of severe neurodevelopmental impairments - the highest reported in the world - prompted calls for earlier diagnosis and intervention.

Dr Gannon says this is an issue policy makers, health professionals, social workers and those within the juvenile justice system "can try to do better".

Efforts must start with better recognising what drives these youths to offend, he said.

"Many, many times, the inability to make the right decisions, the inability of fairly basic processing issues within the brain are a result of the damage done by FASD," Dr Gannon told Sky News.

Dr Gannon also renewed the AMA's call for FASD to be labelled a disability so sufferers can gain greater access to support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

"We've called for FASD previously to be called a disability, to be labelled as such, so that people found to be suffering from it are appropriately looked after."

The common difficulties experienced by most at the Banksia Hill detention facility included problems with understanding complex language, planning, memory, cognition, motor skills and attention.

Paediatrician Dr Raewyn Mutch, who was part of the Banksia Hill Project, says many of these kids would have just been written off as "naughty children" when in fact much of their socially unacceptable behaviour stems from a brain "that just isn't working properly."

"Some of these young people were profoundly impaired, yet for many this was the first time they had received a comprehensive assessment to examine their strengths and difficulties, despite attending school and, in many cases, despite their prior engagement with child protection services and the justice system," Dr Mutch said.

Earlier educational intervention and rehabilitation may have prevented their incarceration, she said.

Published in the British Medical Journal BMJ Open, the authors call for all young people to be fully assessed on entry into the juvenile justice system and better training of staff.

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