Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to contribute to this important debate on Bill C-235, which aims to assist those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
The proposal before us today is to require that the courts take into account that fetal alcohol spectrum disorder may be a mitigating factor in the Criminal Code infraction and should be taken into account during sentencing. It also proposes to address the fact that those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, would require additional support to reintegrate into society following the serving of any sentence. There are a number of other proposed changes, but the principal focus are those I have just outlined.
My perspective on this subject is somewhat different than many. In the past, I served on the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission for a certain number of years before I began my political career. Through direct interactions with people with FASD, with those working with them, and with those affected by their actions, I got to know the issue quite well. However, just when we think we have seen and heard it all, something happens to remind us that this subject is so broad and complex that a lifetime is not enough to become an expert in this field.
FASD cannot be cured. It affects about 1% of the Canadian population. Of course, we know that the rate of incidence is much higher among certain populations and in certain areas of our country. These communities are looking to us for help, understanding, compassion, and strength. As I mentioned before, I served on AADAC, the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, and this work took me to many communities around Alberta, communities impacted by FASD. Sadly, this is a common issue in first nations communities, often in remote locations, which makes education and treatment work much more difficult.
Having also served as Alberta's aboriginal relations minister for a number of years, I also saw first hand the devastating outcome of Alberta's aboriginal communities from this increasingly common condition of FASD.
One of the challenges is identifying this disorder early in order to deal with it appropriately. The average assessment alone costs around $4,000 to $5,000. Then, there is the never-ending stigma attached to this mental illness. Families often do not even seek help for their children because of this alone.
Sadly, we know that those born with FASD are already facing an uphill battle in life. Many are born into poverty and often into a world of substance abuse, neglect, and endless other challenges. We know these conditions are the base conditions for problems later on.
FASD victims, and I call them victims as they suffer due to the negligent actions of others, specifically their biological mothers, are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system and experience health and learning challenges.
Before I go any further, this bill will not improve or change the situation for people affected by FASD. We know judges already, in every court case, are required to exercise their judgment and discretion when sentencing. I do not think the bill will change that.
As with many mental health issues, talking publicly about it goes a long way to helping everyone understand and cope. The justice system is becoming much more aware everyday of this mental illness. I am concerned that we are singling out FASD for special consideration from other mental health conditions. We need to understand that the situations faced by one's mental illness often and significantly overlap with those faced by another. Why only help those suffering from one mental condition?
As a nation, we are quickly opening up the conversation on mental health issues, and this is a good thing. It was inevitable that we would end up discussing mental health in terms of the Criminal Code. We know that those with mental health issues are at a much higher risk of having a relationship with our criminal justice system.
Our justice system holds Canadians to a certain standard of conduct and a certain standard of compliance. It presumes rational thinking and it presumes certain sensibilities.
We know that mental illness makes these societal expectations go beyond the reach of those suffering from a mental health condition. The challenge is balance. How do we balance the expectations of large portions of a population that expects people to follow all the rules with another portion of the population that is not fully capable of doing so? If something goes wrong, who is the real victim? I say they both are.
We need to be compassionate and understanding to realize that both are victims, one long ago and one more recently. This is the challenge that we face as a society, as 90% of those with FASD have behavioural issues and more than 40% have mental disabilities and intellectual impairment. More than 40% have issues with depression. Often these issues overlap and make treatment even more difficult to tailor to that particular individual.
The statistics are really shocking. According to research by University of Alberta Professor Jacqueline Pei, 95% of people who suffer from FASD have been diagnosed with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. This makes daily functioning in our society an extreme challenge and explains their high interaction rate with the criminal justice system.
The executive director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon explained it before a parliamentary committee quite succinctly. Wenda Bradley said that FASD suffers can often speak at a normal adult level, but end up understanding at a grade four level. Imagine how this causes issues on the streets in their interactions with the police or when they seek medical care.
As the May 2015 parliamentary report by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights noted, it is estimated that each individual with FASD creates roughly $1.5 million to $2 million in direct costs to the federal, provincial, and territorial governments over their lifetime. Each individual is cause for $2 million in costs.
Many witnesses reported that people who care for a child with FASD also bear a heavy burden psychologically, socially, and financially, as well as in their professional and marital lives.
A great deal of work was done on this issue in the last Parliament and the conclusions were clear. We need better, more rapid diagnosis, and we need timely and appropriate interventions to mitigate the negative impacts of this disorder.
The bill, while well-intentioned, fails to capture the fact that this FASD involves a variety of mental illnesses and disorders that result in criminal justice issues.
I urge my colleagues to do what they can to assist FASD affected people. My experience has shown that they often cannot speak for themselves. They know what they need, but they often cannot articulate their needs.
They often live beyond the reach of urban support programs. They often lack any family support for treatment. They often suffer alone. I believe that we can do a better job of helping them before they become part of our criminal justice system.