Study finds 89 per cent of WA youth in detention have neurological impairments


Almost 40 per cent of Western Australian youth in detention have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and almost 90 per cent have a neurological impairment, according to a new study.

Almost nine out of 10 incarcerated youth in Western Australia have a severe neurological impairment, according to a new study.

The Banksia Hill Project was the first study in Australia to research fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) among incarcerated young people. It also looked into several other neurological impairments.

Professor Carol Bower
Professor Carol Bower, Researcher with the Telethon Kids Institute

Professor Carol Bower was one of the researchers involved and said the project examined nine domains of neurodevelopment.

"We found that 36 per cent of the young people fulfilled the diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder," she said.

"The other thing we found was that 89 per cent of them had severe impairment in at least one of those brain domains."

FASD is a condition caused by mothers drinking alcohol during pregnancy. It can cause severe brain damage resulting in significant cognitive, behavioural and learning difficulties.

In some cases, FASD can also cause facial deformation of the child.

Assistant Professor Raewyn Mutch of Telethon Kids Institute said this was the first comprehensive research into FASD in the Australian justice system.

"Nationally, we know that fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is under-diagnosed. If you don't diagnose the problem, then you can't respond with specific therapies," Dr Mutch said.

Dr Raewyn Mutch is a Paediatrician and Researcher with the Telethon Kids Institute
Dr Raewyn Mutch, Paediatrician and Researcher with the Telethon Kids Institute

Due to its various symptoms, the disorder is sometimes referred to as the "invisible disability" by child development professionals, with the condition being overlooked or blamed on bad parenting.

The study was organised by the Telethon Kids Institute, who worked with over 100 children aged between 10 and 17 to assess any neurological damage that may have been caused.

Of the 99 who were fully assessed, only two of the 36 cases of FASD had previously been diagnosed, with several more believed to have the condition, though it was unable to be confirmed. 

Additional tests across a wide spectrum of domains including cognitive behaviour, motor skills and memory, found nine out of 10 of those assessed were impacted by at least one neurological impairment, with 65 per cent having at least three domains severely impaired.

The study has led to a new set of guidelines for working with children for the Western Australia Department of Justice, due to be introduced at the Banksia Hill Detention Centre. 

Western Australia Minister for Corrective Services Fran Logan said the new program will be instrumental in getting these children the support they need.

"If you're looking at a cohort of a 113, and over 80 per cent of those young people are suffering from those problems, that tells you a lot about the extent of the problem," he said.

"The Telethons Kids Institute is working with the department to train staff, who may well have seen the symptoms of neurodevelopmental problems, but not understood that they're actually cognitive disorders."

WA Minister for Corrective Services, Fran Logan,
WA Minister for Corrective Services, Fran Logan.

Telethon Kids Institute researcher Haley Passmore said along with the new procedures, extensive training material will be provided.

"We're working closely with the Department of Justice to develop a series of training videos which really show ... These impairments," she said.

"Juvenile justice staff need to be trained in how to better understand and manage young people who have neurodevelopmental impairments."

If the new program is successful, researchers are hoping to provide the program to other correctional centres around the country, giving children the support they need instead of time behind bars.

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