FASD and TRC Call to Action 34.4: A Consideration of Evaluation Methods

Introduction

According to Flannigan, Pei, Stewart, and Johnson (2018), “the involvement of individuals with FASD [Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder] in the criminal justice system has garnered high levels of attention and activity in policy and practice circles, yet there is a paucity of available data to inform and direct these activities” (Flannigan et al. 2018, 50). There is a need to evaluate current interventions. This is not to indicate that these are poor practices but rather to note the need for evaluation as well as programming. Further to this, Flannigan et al argue:

Despite the emerging evidence that individuals with FASD and [prenatal alcohol exposure] PAE may be overrepresented and vulnerable in the justice system, we have a limited understanding, based on the current evidence, of what types of supports might lead to better outcomes. There is no research to explore what forms of intervention may help or harm individuals involved in the system, which hinders our ability to train professionals who are eager to support positive outcomes for this group, or even what training messages and approaches are needed. (Flannigan et al. 2018, 50-51)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released 94 Calls to Action in June 2015. In the subsection of the justice-related action item is TRC Call to Action 34 that states:

34. We call upon the governments of Canada, the provinces, and territories to undertake reforms to the criminal justice system to better address the needs of offenders with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), including:

  1. Providing increased community resources and powers for courts to ensure that FASD is properly diagnosed, and that appropriate community supports are in place for those with FASD.
  2. Enacting statutory exemptions from mandatory minimum sentences of imprisonment for offenders affected by FASD.
  3. Providing community, correctional, and parole resources to maximize the ability of people with FASD to live in the community.
  4. Adopting appropriate evaluation mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of such programs and ensure community safety. (TRC 2015)

Calls for justice reform and the need to address the impacts of FASD within the courts are not new. Having FASD mentioned specifically in the TRC Calls to Action stressed the relationship that the disability has to residential schools and amplified other calls for justice reform to address FASD as it relates to the criminal justice system. Research has demonstrated the need to address the prevalence of FASD in the criminal justice system in Canada (see for example McLachlan et al. 2019) and a wide range of projects have focused on FASD in the criminal justice system in recent years (Flannigan et al. 2018). The inclusion of FASD within the TRC has broadened the expectations for reform, as the TRC Calls to Action are not about small-scale change, they are about systemic change.

FASD is a lifelong disability. It is frequently misunderstood, with an emphasis placed on cogitative disabilities, but FASD can impact the whole body and is often accompanied by a number of concurrent medical issues (Mattson, Crocker, and Nguyen 2011; Popova et al. 2016). FASD can occur as a result of an intricate combination of factors when an individual is prenatally exposed to alcohol (Cook et al. 2016). Some of the contributing factors can include: poverty, malnutrition, trauma, lack of access to prenatal health care, and pre-existing factors (Badry and Choate 2015). Moreover, individuals with FASD are likely to face stigma through both their disability and the many layers of marginalization they might face, including the misunderstandings and racism that surround the disability (Bell et al. 2015; Choate and Badry 2019; Stewart 2016). Misunderstandings about these complexities result in short-sighted prevention practices (Salmon 2011; Stewart 2016). FASD is a recognized disability, which means that people with FASD are entitled to rights and accommodations as enshrined in Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One could easily argue that the combined evidence that (1) there is a limited understanding of FASD as a disability, (2) there is an over-representation of individuals with FASD in the youth and adult courts, and (3) that FASD’s inclusion within the TRC Calls to Action demonstrates some serious concerns about the Charter rights of those with this disability. For these reasons, bringing about programs and practices to address this issue is critical—and as the TRC notes, these programs need to be appropriately evaluated.

The information provided in this document should not be taken as definitive direction for all communities, but as an initial guide in understanding appropriate evaluation mechanisms in the context of FASD programming.

There is a need for increased FASD-specific programs and practices. As FASD is experienced differently by each individual and their communities, there is also a need for such programs and practices to be individualized and adaptable to the needs of the specific community. Accordingly, the design, implementation, and evaluation of such programs should be collaborative and consultative. Alongside an understanding of current practices, evaluation mechanisms should include robust collaborations that are community-driven and in direct consultation with individuals with FASD, their families, and the communities within which the proposed programs and practices will take place.

The following sections offer some critical background to the reader about the complexity of FASD programming, current programs, evaluation methods, and considerations for future evaluation practices.

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