Mr. Speaker, I rise today to support Bill C-235.
I have had the privilege over the past year since my election as the member for Saskatoon West to meet with a wide range of groups and individuals in my community. One meeting which stood out for me was the one with representatives from the FASD Network in Saskatoon.
The FASD Network of Saskatchewan is a provincial organization that works with families, children, and adults affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. It is a group of dedicated parents who came together in the early 1990s, seeking support and understanding. They have common concerns about the challenges related to parenting children affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol.
When the network began, very little was known about FASD. Families faced stigma, lack of services, and misunderstanding. Now, 20 years later, the network is a community-based, provincial organization with an office in my riding in Saskatoon. Over the years, the level of knowledge and understanding in Saskatchewan communities has grown along with the network. Today, the network offers support, training, and events across the province.
Before I speak to the bill itself, I would like to reiterate and emphasize some facts about FASD, some of which we have heard already.
FASD is the biggest single cause of mental disabilities in most industrialized countries. According to Health Canada, FASD affects nine in every 1,000 babies in Canada, or 3,000 births per year; 300,000 Canadians are currently living with FASD.
As we have heard, FASD is an umbrella term to describe a range of disabilities and diagnoses, the severity of which may be affected by how much alcohol was consumed by the mother and when.
The effects of FASD, such as difficulty reasoning, inability to remember things like appointments, trouble learning from past experiences and not repeating mistakes, can often contribute to other problems, including mental health issues, dropping out of school, trouble with the law, chronic unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness.
Amy Salmon, executive director of the Canada Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research Network (CanFASD), has said:
We know that people with FASD are overrepresented--both as offenders, but also as victims--within the justice system. And we know that in many places around the country, people with FASD are also overrepresented among those who are incarcerated.
Living with FASD is about more than a diagnosis. It is also about living with strengths and struggles. It is about living with a disability. All across Canada, infants, children, youth, and adults live with FASD and experience a range of primary disabilities caused directly by prenatal alcohol exposure. No two individuals experience the primary cognitive, behavioural, physical, or sensory disabilities in the same way.
FASD affects not just the individual, but families and their communities as well. There are no confirmed statistics on the number of Canadians living with FASD, but the commonly stated rate is 1%. Using that rate, about 153 Saskatchewan babies were born with FASD in 2014.
It is a lifelong disability, but when we have the right attitudes and put the right supports in place around both the families that are going to be having children and the families that may be living with children who live with FASD, we can set people up for success.
Here are some sobering numbers. An estimated one out of 100 newborns are affected by FASD in Canada and, of that population, 60% of those individuals will have interaction with the justice system. In 2014-15, the cost of incarceration for individuals ranged from $199 for provincial jails to over $300 per day federally. FASD is an invisible disability, thus, opting for FASD testing and referrals to community services and support systems will decrease the fiscal impact of high cost incarceration, while ensuring continuous support from the community.
This combination of individual, professional, and systemic factors converge to result in a disproportionate number of youth with FASD being incarcerated. In fact, youth with FASD have been found to be 10 to 19 times more likely to be incarcerated than youth without FASD.
In another sample of 253 individuals with FASD, 60% reported a history of being charged, convicted, or in trouble with authorities, and 42% of adults had been incarcerated. Recent data from the forensic outpatient clinic in Saskatchewan revealed that the rate of FASD diagnoses was 55% in its adult population. All of the available evidence to date indicates both the necessity and value of incorporating FASD screening and diagnosis into the justice system.
In the absence of a full diagnosis that requires a multidisciplinary team, several screening tools have been developed and validated, including the FASD checklist and the Youth Probation Officers' Guide to FASD Screening and Referral.
With improved understanding and recognition of FASD in the criminal justice system, appropriate and early interventions and management plans can be implemented. Whether encountering the justice system as a witness, victim, or offender, individuals with FASD have unique and often complex needs that are not supported in the current justice system model. With improved training of FASD for front-line workers, individuals with FASD will have access to equitable justice outcomes.
The framework for action on FASD, unveiled in 2003, recognized that:
The costs of FASD to society are high—without taking into account the lost potential and opportunity, direct costs associated with FASD over a lifetime have been estimated at about $1.5 million per person with FASD.
I am in full agreement with FASD Saskatoon when it says it is imperative for Canada to recognize FASD as a cognitive disability that reduces moral culpability and thus should be a mitigating factor during sentencing. FASD is brain damage.
While Bill C-235 should not eliminate culpability, the courts need to question the ethics and fairness around proposing sentences without accounting for organic brain damage, which could result in charges that the person does not understand stem from his or her actions.
It is essential to have mandated training for front-line workers to increase awareness and understanding of the impact an FASD diagnosis has on individuals entering the justice system.
As is so often the case, when formal systems fail, the community steps in to address and support individuals who fall through the cracks. In my community, I am grateful for the work of the CUMFI Wellness Centre and the FASD support network, and now they need government to partner to ensure equity and fairness for individuals living with FASD.
With training, the legal system can adapt to these individuals with FASD and formulate manageable criteria for interaction.
Since the inception of Saskatoon's Mental Health Strategy court, the network staff in Saskatoon have connected with 29 individuals who live with FASD. Of those 29, 22 became part of the support program's case management and were supported through and after the court process. Of these 22 individuals, three are still going through and being supported through the court process. So far, of the 19 people who have been supported and sentenced through the mental health strategy Court, 17 have not re-offended.
The evidence is clear. People with FASD need support systems both within and without the court system.
Because this disability is often overlooked, those working in the justice system need to be trained to recognize it, and there must also be recognition that individuals and their unique circumstances matter in the pursuit of justice.
It is about making the sentence fit the crime and letting judges exercise discretion based on the facts of the case. In other words, it really is the antithesis of the prescriptive, costly, often ineffective, and frequently unconstitutional approach taken by previous governments, which really removed a lot of judicial discretion in favour of a one-size-fits-all minimum sentence.
We in the NDP support quick passage of this legislation, which has been introduced in past Parliaments and enjoyed support across parties. We look forward to studying the bill in committee.