Speech – 2016.11.07 – Bill C-325 – Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

MP Len Webber in the House of Commons



C-235 – Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

November 3, 2016

Mr. Len Webber (Calgary Confederation, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I’m pleased to be able 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 proposed to address the fact that those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder will require additional support to reintegrate into society following the serving of any sentence.

There also a number of other proposed changes, but the principal focus of the proposed changes are those I just outlined.

My perspective on this subject is somewhat different than most.  In the past, I served on the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission.  Through direct interactions with people with FASD, to those working with them, to those affected by their actions, I got to know this issue quite well.

However, just when you think you’ve seen or heard it all, something happens to remind you that this subject is so broad, so complex that a lifetime is not enough to become an expert.

Mr. Speaker, FASD cannot be cured.  It affects about 1% of the population.  Of course, we know that the rate of incidence is much higher amongst certain populations and in certain areas.  These communities are looking to us for help, understanding, compassion and strength.

As I mentioned before, I served with the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission and this work took me to many communities impacted by FASD.  Sadly, this is a common issue in our First Nations’ communities and their, often remote locations, make education and treatment work much more difficult.

In fact, one of the challenges is identifying this disorder early to appropriately deal with it.  The average assessment alone costs about $4,000.  Then, there is the never-ending stigma attached to this particular mental illness.  Families themselves often don’t 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 they are often born 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 mother … and are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system and experience health and learning challenges.

I will say this before I go any further.  This bill will not improve or change the situation for FASD affected people.

We know judges already, in every court case, are required to exercise their judgment and discretion when sentencing.  I don’t think this bill will change that.  As with many mental health issues, talking publically about it goes a long way to helping everyone understand and cope.  I think the justice system is becoming more aware every day about mental illnesses.

I am concerned that we are singling out FASD for special consideration apart from other mental health conditions.  We need to understand that the situations faced by one 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.  This is a good thing.

It was inevitable that we would end up discussing it in terms of the Criminal Code.  We know that those with mental health issues are at a much, much higher risk of having a relationship with our justice system.

Our justice system holds Canadians to a certain standard of conduct and compliance.  It presumes rational thinking and certain sensibilities.

But, we know that mental illness makes these societal expectations go beyond the reach of those suffering from a condition.  The challenge is balance.

How do we balance the expectations of large portions of the population that expect people to follow all the rules with a portion of the population who are not fully capable of doing so.

When something goes wrong, who is the real victim?  I say both!

We need to be compassionate and understanding … to realize that both are victims … one long ago and one more recent.  This is the challenge we face as a society.

Ninety percent of those with FASD have behavoural issues, more than 40% have mental disabilities and intellectual impairment.  More than 40% have depression issues.  Often these issues overlap and make treatment even more difficult to tailor to the patient.

The stats 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 the high interaction rate with the criminal justice system.

The Executive Director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon explained it be for a parliamentary committee quite succinctly.  Wenda Bradley said FASD sufferers can often speak at a normal adult level, but end up understanding it at a Grade 4 level.  Imagine how this causes issues on the streets in interactions with police officers or when seeking medical care.

As the May 2015 parliamentary report from 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 a lifetime. … Many witnesses reported that the 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 the disorder.

This bill, while well-intentioned, fails to capture the fact that it is 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 can’t speak for themselves.

They may know they need help, but they often can’t articulate those needs.

They often live beyond the reach of urban support programs.

They often lack any family support for their treatment.

They often suffer alone.

I believe we can do a better job of helping them before they become a part of the criminal justice system.

Thank you.