A lot of the discussions about FASD in the justice system mention that people with FASD have trouble as offenders. However, it is important to know that they may also be over-represented as witnesses and victims of crime. Many of the issues that come with FASD increase a person’s vulnerability, but very little attention is paid to the complexities of victims with FASD.
People with FASD may have problems with cognitive skills (i.e., learning, memory, language, higher level thinking), sensory issues, and social interactions. These struggles can be made much worse under stressful or high-pressure situations, such as in the courtroom.
Some examples of where a victim with FASD may have problems in this setting include:
- Struggling to switch from one idea to another
- Challenges with transitions, such as moving in and out of the courthouse, or onto the witness stand
- Not being able to remember the timeline of events
- Feeling ridiculed, embarrassed, and ashamed when asked to give testimony
- Being susceptible to leading questions
- Having trouble with misremembering events
CanFASD researchers recently did a study to learn how we might improve the justice process for people with FASD. They interviewed legal aid, Crown attorneys, judges, Aboriginal court workers, and victim service workers.
The researchers developed suggestions for how to make a complex system simpler for people with FASD. Their recommendations are summarized below:
- Provide FASD training across the legal field.
- Teach professionals how to tailor their approach
- Reduce stigma and foster compassion and dignity for people with FASD
- Promote respectful information sharing
- Craft flexible and individually tailored strategies.
- Allow clients with FASD more time to process information
- Work with a specialized support person to help the victim and their family navigate the system
- Engage courtworkers
- Visit the courtroom with the victim and their support person and allow time to practice before proceedings
- Help the victim and their support person with paperwork
- Support different communication styles and use simplified language
- Talk to FASD experts to better understand the disability
- Always practice patience
- Modify contact with the court and client testimony.
- Consider disclosing the diagnosis (as long as consent is provided by the client)
- Have closed-chambers discussions to protect the client’s privacy and dignity
- Allow for alternative testimony (e.g., the use of a screen, video testimony, testimony from another location, or testimony with the support of a person or therapy animal)
The legal system is already very complicated for the average person. For someone with FASD, the justice process can be outright overwhelming. Unfortunately, there are no policies in Canada for victims with FASD. There is a real need to work toward better protection of victim rights, because small changes in the courtroom can significantly impact lives.
Click here to read the full issue paper devoted to this topic.
Visit the CanFASD website for more justice-related information and resources.