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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in America, Pt. 3: The Criminal Justice System

The Chronicle of Social Change is featuring a five-part series on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) from Helen Ramaglia, an advocate for foster youth and a member of our Blogger Co-Op. Click here to read Part 1, and here to read Part 2.

Individuals with an FASD are involved with the criminal justice system at an alarming rate. Youth and adults with FASD have a form of brain damage that may make it difficult for them to stay out of trouble with the law.

According to “A Proposed Model Standard for Forensic Assessment of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders,” penned by a group of researchers in 2010, the average age children with an FASD begin having trouble with the law is 12.8 years old.

They sometimes do not know how to deal with police, attorneys, judges, social workers, psychiatrists, corrections and probation officers, and others they may encounter.

Often times, an individual with an FASD does not intentionally set out to break the law. Instead, the lack of impulse control drives the need to complete the action, with little if any thought to the consequences of those actions. For example, they may touch people when it is unwanted and think they are just being friendly. They may take things that do not belong to them because they like them.

fas and criminal justice - MOFAS

Reasons individuals with an FASD get in trouble with the law:

• Lack of impulse control and trouble thinking of future consequences of current behavior.
• Difficulty planning, connecting cause and effect, empathizing, taking responsibility, delaying gratification or making good judgments.
• Tendency toward explosive episodes.
• Vulnerability to peer pressure (e.g., may commit a crime to please their friends).

Because of their disabilities, persons with and FASD may repeat the same mistakes, and may repeat the same mistakes many times. Thus, support to improve functioning might be more appropriate than rehabilitation.

Understanding how a person with a FASD respond to certain situations can help. Due to sensory issues, they can become overwhelmed by bright lights, causing them to panic and run from the police or resist arrest. Because they are eager to please, many unknowingly waive their rights by signing forms they do not understand. In addition, they may consent to being searched or take responsibility for the crimes of others to win favor. It is also not uncommon for an FASD individual to make false confessions to crimes they did not commit.

Sentencing is also an issue. Some people with an FASD respond well to the intense structure and rules of prison. Others are vulnerable to attack, exploitation, and manipulation by other inmates. Some do not understand prison rules and break them. Because corrections officers may not understand FASD, they may punish inmates with an FASD for failing to follow directions.

criminal justice MOFAS.org

For all of these reasons, it’s imperative that all justice officials and workers at all be educated and trained on this ever growing condition. In 2012, the American Bar Association passed a resolution urging all attorneys and judges to receive training to help identify and respond effectively to FASD in the criminal justice system. However, this is a resolution that is desperately needed throughout the entire criminal justice system.

We must advocate for rehabilitation over punishment. Otherwise, repeat offensives are probable. And our already overloaded prison system will continue to host individuals unable to control their impulses next to those who are perhaps unwilling to control their impulses.

Every individual deserves the right to lead a healthy productive life. If we continue to ignore this disability and don’t reach out to equip this population with the correct tools to overcome, billions of taxpayer dollars will continue to be spent to no avail, and our criminal justice numbers will continue to grow out of sight.

Helen Ramaglia is a foster alumni who became a foster/adoptive parent. She is the founder and Director of Fostering Superstars, a Congressional Award Winner for her work with foster children and is the author of “From Foster to Fabulous”. She is a popular speaker, trainer and advocate for foster children.

Want to share your opinion or analysis with colleagues in the youth services field? Join our one-of-a-kind Blogger Co-Op, and share in the benefits from your work!

TAGS: Blogger Co-Op, crime, FASD, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, helen ramaglia, juvenile justice, mental health


  1. December 11, 2013, 1:12 am

    [...] foster youth and a member of our Blogger Co-Op. Click here to read Part 1, here to read Part 2, here to read Part 3, and here to read Part [...]


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