Tackling Australia’s hidden disability - fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

12 Sep 2011

Queensland criminal justice workers to tackle Australia's hidden disability - fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

The treatment of people with alcohol-related birth defects in the criminal justice system will be the focus of a project aimed at raising awareness of this under recognised disability.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD)1  are the most common, preventable cause of disabilities and brain damage in children, triggered by exposure to alcohol during pregnancy.

The $60,000 Australian-first study, funded by the Alcohol Education & Rehabilitation Foundation (AER Foundation), will see researchers survey the knowledge, attitudes, practices and training deficits within Queensland criminal justice agencies when dealing with people suffering from FASD. 

Led by the University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research, those surveyed will include representatives from probation and parole services, correctional services, the police service, lawyers, judiciary, defence counsel and legal aid staff.

AER Foundation Chief Executive Michael Thorn said people with FASD are often overrepresented in the criminal justice system2-⁵.

"It's unclear whether staff employed in criminal justice agencies are adequately equipped to deal with people with FASD. In cases where FASD goes unidentified, defendants may be inappropriately dealt with by the justice process⁶.

"An insight into the knowledge, attitudes and practices of staff within criminal justice agencies will be the first step towards understanding any specific training needs they may require when dealing with people suffering from this lifelong disability that often goes unrecognised.

"Overall, the research outcomes will contribute to the development of appropriate rehabilitation, support and management strategies for FASD sufferers and their families. While this is a Queensland-based project, we hope that it will provide a framework that will be adopted across Australia," Mr Thorn said.

In a separate research study, the AER Foundation will provide $50,000 funding support for an Australian-first research study which will look into how children and teenagers with FASD are treated by the criminal justice system. Conducted by the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Perth, the study is due to be completed early next year.

The projects are part of the AER Foundation's $500,000 investment to reduce the impact of FASD in Australia. The other AER Foundation-funded projects are:

  • The Children's Hospital at Westmead, New South Wales, will develop Australia's first screening and diagnostic service for FASD ($108,000 grant)
  • The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, New South Wales, will undertake a research study aimed at improving services for pregnant women dependent on alcohol ($50,057 grant); and another study to help improve services to families affected by FASD ($50,057 grant)
  • The Telethon Institute for Child Health Research will undertake a research study into the screening and diagnosis of children with FASD in state care ($150,000 grant)
  • The George Institute for Global Health, New South Wales, will produce two films: a feature documentary about the life of an Aboriginal child living with FASD and an educational film about the broader issue of FASD ($40,000 grant)

A recent community poll⁷ released by the AER Foundation found that 80% of Australians believe consuming alcohol while pregnant can be harmful to the developing foetus; and 72% believe drinking alcohol while breastfeeding is harmful to the baby.

The poll also identified education gaps around the topic, with less than half (42%) of respondents who have been pregnant or breastfed recalling these harms being raised with them by a healthcare professional.

"The AER Foundation will continue to address the gaps in FASD research and practice. The outcomes from these projects will provide much-needed support for people living with FASD, and their carers and families."

Mr Thorn added: "Underpinning all this, we need to drive home the point that not drinking at all while pregnant is the best practice approach endorsed by our medical experts and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council Guidelines. If we don't do something about this now, it will be too late for a generation of children who will be born into a life of disability as a result of their mother's drinking."


1Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) encompasses four conditions: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), partial FAS (pFAS), Alcohol Related Birth Defects (ARBD) and Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorders (ARND).

2Green JH. 2007. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: understanding the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure and supporting students. J Sch Health. Mar;77(3):103-8.

3May PA, Gossage JP, Kalberg WO, Robinson LK, Buckley D, Manning M, Hoyme HE. 2009. Prevalence and epidemiologic characteristics of FASD from various research methods with an emphasis on recent in-school studies. Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews 15:176-192.

⁴Douglas H, 2010 The Sentencing Response to Defendnats with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Criminal LawJournal 34: 221-239.

⁵Burd L, Selfridge R, Klug M, et al. 2004. Fetal alcohol syndrome in the United States corrections system. AddictBiol 9:177-178.

⁶Fast D and Conry J, 2009. "Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and the Criminal Justice System" DevelopmentalDisabilities Research Reviews 15(3): 250-257.

⁷The AER Foundation-commissioned Galaxy study was conducted between 14th to 17th January 2011. It was national online survey (excluding NT) and was weighted by age, gender and location (based on ABS population estimates) to the national population. There were 1,009 respondents aged 18 years and above. 

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Media Contact: Camille Alarcon - 02) 9492 1042 / 0488 176 188

Alcohol Education & Rehabilitation Foundation (AER Foundation): The AER Foundation is an independent, charitable organisation working to prevent the harmful use of alcohol in Australia. Since 2001, the AER Foundation has invested over $115 million in research and community projects to minimise the impact of alcohol misuse on Australians. Through our national grants program and commissioned research, the AER Foundation has established itself as a leading voice on alcohol and other drugs issues. We work with community groups, all levels of government, police, emergency workers, research institutions and the private sector to address alcohol-related problems. For further information visit our website: www.aerf.com.au