Author: Jerrod Brown
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is a group of disorders that does not lend neuropsychological deficits (e.g., executive control, impulsivity, and decision-making) that require high levels of support and services, but can present relatively independently of intelligence. Complicating these already challenging neuropsychological symptoms, only around 10 % of individuals with FASD have visible signs of facial dysmorphia, which become less apparent as individuals physically mature into adulthood. This combination of symptomatology limits the ability of unprepared clinicians to render differential diagnoses and increases the likelihood of under-identification and misdiagnosis of FASD.
The identification of FASD is further muddled by a lack of reliable screening instruments in forensic settings, sometimes limited access to medical and historical records, and memory-related issues. First, the relative dearth of FASD screening instruments developed and validated for use in forensic settings, especially in adult populations only contributes to the under-identification of FASD. Second, gaps in current and historical medical records also make it sometimes difficult to identify the presence of prenatal alcohol exposure with any degree of certainty for adults. The fact that some individuals with FASD were adopted or involved in multiple foster care placements only decreases the likelihood of such records or access to the birth mother. Third, adults with FASD often have memory issues. This includes impairments in short-and long-term memory and the potential for suggestibility (e.g., inclination to agree with statements and implications of others) and confabulation (e.g., the creation of new memories from real and fictional experiences).
As such, a clinician should not solely rely on information reported by an adult who possibly has FASD without seeking out collateral sources of information.
Working to resolve these screening and assessment issues and increasing the likelihood of early and accurate identification and implementation of appropriate services and supports offers the most promise in rendering desistance from involvement in the criminal justice system.
The varied symptomatology and screening and assessment issues of FASD emphasize the importance of awareness amongst forensic professionals. Unfortunately, there is a lack of general awareness of FASD among forensic professionals, which is contributed to by limited coverage of the disorder during education and advanced trainings. Further, there are few forensic experts in the area of FASD. Not only does this often leave many questions of how to deal with adults with FASD who are involved in the criminal justice system unanswered, but this lack of expertise also limits the potential of referral for specialized FASD assessments involving individuals in adult forensic populations. Complimenting this lack of knowledge in the field is a lack of adult specialized FASD-based treatment and intervention options in both community and confined settings. These shortcomings highlight the importance of implementing FASD awareness campaigns in adult forensic settings and expanded forensic-specific coverage of FASD in educational and continuing education settings.
The Importance of Recognizing FASD in Legal Settings
If FASD is not recognized in a suspect or witness, a number of issues can arise during the legal process. Specifically, an individual with FASD could
(a) have difficulty coherently recalling a series of events,
(b) be suggestible to questioning during interviews, interrogations, or testimony, and
(c) behave or present themselves in a manner that is misinterpreted by others during legal proceedings.
FASD and the Criminal Justice System:
The Importance of Continuing Education
Within the criminal justice system, including professionals employed in forensic mental health settings, the need for FASD-based continuing education is crucial. However, experience tells us that many professionals working in such arenas often do not receive the adequate training necessary to effectively assist, communicate with, and treat individuals with suspected or confirmed FASD.
Deficits associated with prenatal alcohol exposure can sometimes be hidden and subtle and can create confusion and challenges for staff members employed in all criminal justice settings, especially when knowledge of the disorder is limited.
In the absence of such awareness, justice professionals may fail to identify and provide appropriate accommodations for individuals with FASD who are involved in the many stages of the criminal justice system (e.g., arrest, trial, sentencing, incarceration, community supervision). As a result, this may be one of the factors associated with why individuals with FASD are often at a greater disadvantage when involved in the justice system. As such, training for all members of the criminal justice system pertaining to identification, intervention, and treatment of individuals with FASD should be an immediate and necessary priority.
Jerrod Brown, MA, MS, MS, MS, is the Treatment Director for Pathways Counseling Center, Inc. Pathways provides programs and services benefiting individuals impacted by mental illness and addictions. Jerrod is also the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS), lead developer and program director of an online graduate degree program in Forensic Mental Health from Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Editor-in-Chief of Forensic Scholars Today. Jerrod is currently in the dissertation phase of his doctorate degree program in psychology. Please contact Jerrod at Jerrod01234Brown@Live.com if you have questions about this article or would like a full list of references used for this article.