• File photos of unidentified inmates at a youth detention centre. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
High rates of brain damage and mental impairment shock researchers assessing young people in Australian youth detention facility.
Staff writers

14 Feb 2018 - 5:26 AM  UPDATED 14 Feb 2018 - 5:30 AM

A study has revealed that nine out of ten young people in detention have a form of mental impairment from brain damage or injury, while three out of ten have alcohol related brain damage.

Researchers on the Banksia Hill Project assessed more than 100 people in youth detention for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) according to a paper on their findings released today in the British Medical Journal.

The researchers, led by Professor Carol Bower, said they were surprised to find that in addition to FASD, which occurs when children are exposed to alcohol in the womb, there was evidence of neurodevelopmental impairment in almost everyone they assessed.

“Of the 99 young people who completed full assessments we found 36 of them – more than one in three – had FASD," Professor Bower said. 

“Just as worryingly, we found that 89 per cent of the sentenced young people had at least one severe neurodevelopmental impairment, whether they had FASD or not."

“Similarly to FASD, this is amongst the highest reported rate of neuro-disability amongst sentenced youth in the world.”

The people assessed were aged 10-17 years and were serving time at the Western Australians Banksia Hill Detention Centre between 2015 and 2016. 

Banksia Hill has been at the centre of an ongoing scandal around alleged torture of detainees.

WA Corrective Services Minister Fran Logan announced last month that Inspector of Custodial Services Neil Morgan would examine the allegations of abuse made by Amnesty International that include some children being held in solitary confinement for long periods.

In a 2016 Conversation piece law academics Tamara Tulich and Harry Blagg said Australian governments had failed to respond to the impacts of FASD in Indigenous communities particularly for individuals who lives intersect with the criminal justice system.

They called for Indigenous led programs to deal with the problems caused by FASD.

"To begin addressing the needs of Indigenous young people with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the criminal justice response must focus on diversion into Indigenous community-owned-and-managed structures and processes," they wrote.

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A 2015 study found that in remote Western Australian Aboriginal communities one in eight children had FASD.

The Liliwan study looked at children in the communities of the Fitzroy Valley found what were then the world's worst rates of the syndrome.

Of the youth inmates assessed in The Banksia Hill Project, a quarter were found to have intellectual disability, with an IQ score of 70 of lower.

Paediatrician Dr Raewyn Mutch who was involved in conducting the assessments, said many of those with severe impairment had in the past been blamed for their behaviour and labelled ‘naughty children’.

“What they do is socially unacceptable but it’s arisen from a brain that isn’t working properly, and that underlying, innate difference of brain function has not been previously recognised nor understood,” Dr Mutch said.

“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.

  • The Telethon Kids Institute assessment team was made up of health professionals including a paediatrician, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, and a neuropsychology team
  • They worked with more than 100 young people aged 10-17 years who were sentenced to various periods of time at Banksia Hill Detention Centre during 2015 and 2016 99 young people completed full assessments
  • Domains assessed were: brain structure/neurology, cognition, attention, executive functioning, motor, language, memory, adaptive skills and social communication, and academic skills
  • 89% had at least one of these domains meeting the level of severe impairment
  • 65% had at least three domains severely impaired
  • Only 11 of the young people who completed full assessments had no domains of severe neurodevelopmental impairment 36 young people in the study (36%) were identified as having FASD – the highest known prevalence of FASD in a custodial/corrective setting worldwide – with several more suspected but unable to be confirmed