Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: Knowledge, attitudes and practice in the WA criminal justice system

What is this research about?

Affected children and adolescents within the justice sector may exhibit problems with learning, poor memory, difficulty self-managing their behaviour, poor co-ordination and difficulty communicating.  These problems may not be recognised or understood as symptoms associated with a disorder within the fetal alcohol spectrum.


The challenges within the justice sector for clients with a FASD were outlined by Associate Professor Heather Douglas, School of Law, University of Queensland, in her presentation to the Sentencing 2010 Conference, National Judicial College of Australia, Australian National University 


"It may be appropriate, considering the apparent under-diagnosis of FASD, to require sentencing report writers to address the possibility of FASD in preparation of their reports in circumstances where there has been a history of breaches of court orders or where there are other matters that suggest the possibility of FASD (for example impulsive offending or known history of maternal drinking). While more resources directed towards therapy are needed, the first step is awareness."


In his submission to the WA FASD Inquiry the Chief Justice of Western Australia stated: "... people who suffer from FASD are likely to be predisposed to offending behaviour, and they are likely to be significantly disadvantaged at virtually every point in the criminal jsutice system."

The aim of this project was to:

  • assess justice professionals' awareness and knowledge of FASD
  • assess the perceived impact of FASD on their practice
  • identify justice professionals' information needs


Ethics Approval

We ensure that the work and research we do does not harm others and that the people who participate in the project are treated with respect.


Ethics approval helps to ensure that research complies with established guidelines such as the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research


Ethics approval for this project has been granted by the University of Western Australian Human Research Ethics Committee.



This project was funded by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). The project commenced in June 2011 and was completed in November 2012.



Who conducted this research? 




  • Dr Raewyn Mutch: Paediatirican and Senior Clinical Research Fellow, Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Western Australia
  • Dr Rochelle Watkins: Research Fellow, Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Western Australia
  • Ms Heather Jones: Manager FASD Projects, Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Western Australia
  • Winthrop Research Professor Carol Bower: Senior Principal Research Fellow, Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Western Australia 


Reference Group

In line with good governance and community participation in health and medical research we have set up a Reference Group. Membership of this group includes representatives from the following organisations:


  • Criminal Law Committee, The Law Society of Western Australia
  • Department of Corrective Services
  • Foster Care Association of Western Australia
  • Legal Aid WA
  • National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Australia
  • WA Police


The Reference Group worked with researchers to:


  • assist with the study design, survey development and recruitment
    review and approve the final report to FARE



For further information please contact Heather Jones 



What did we do?

We conducted an on-line survey of staff across four sectors of the Western Australian justice system.


  • Judicial officers (judges and magistrates)
  • Lawyers
  • Department of Corrective services staff
  • WA Police Officers


The survey comprised:

  1. General module for all sectors of the justice system which included questions on gender, age, location of work, role, years working in the position and general questions on FASD
  2. Specific sector modules which sought information on how FASD may impact on their work within the criminal justice system


What did we find?


Survey results:

  • over 90% of judicial officers, lawyers and DCS staff, and almost 75% of police officers were aware of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).
  • awareness of FASD was lower than for FAS across all sectors.
  • more than 75% of judicial officers, 85% of lawyers and DCS staff, and almost 50% of police officers perceived FASD as relevant to their work.
  • approximately 60% of participants from the judicial and legal sectors, 67% of staff from the corrections sector, and 43% from the police sector reported ever dealing with a person who may have been affected by FASD.
  • widespread agreement among judicial officers (79%), lawyers (92%) and DCS staff (84%) that the assessment and diagnosis of FASD would improve the possibilities of appropriate consequences for unacceptable behaviour.
  • most participants (72%) also indicated a need for more information about FASD, including information to improve the identification of individuals in need of specialist assessment, and guidelines on how to deal with people with FASD.
  • strong support across all sectors for the development of appropriate alternative or diversionary sentencing options for people with FASD.



How will this research help?

FASD has been recognised to potentially affect the ability to understand and respond appropriately to interviewing, to be a reliable and credible witness, to understand the charges and the court proceedings, and to comply with court orders or the requirements of imprisonment.


FASD is not an excuse for breaking the law. However, all young people, including those with an FASD, deserve to be treated equally before the law. As stated in the WA Bench Book 'equality before the law' does not mean 'same treatment'. Increased awareness and action at all levels of the justice system can offer a lifeline to young people with an FASD. Improved knowledge and understanding by justice professionals, access to assessment and diagnostic services will assist in better assisting and managing these young people in the community and corrections system. In addition, the potential benefits to society, through decreased crime and costs, are advantageous.



Outcomes from this research


Final Report
A final report was published in 2013. Read the Final Report


Research Project Summary Report
Read the Summary Report
Since the completion of the 'FASD: Knowledge, attitudes and practice in the WA justice system' project and publication of the final report we have:

  • met with judges and magistrates and lawyers to plan educational opportunities and continuing professional development
  • made presentations at judicial and legal conferences and seminars
  • met with judicial officers to discuss the establishment of assessment and diagnostic facilities 


This research has resulted in:

  • invitation to update the FASD section in Chapter 4 Disabilities in the WA Equality before the Law Bench Book
  • invitations to present at legal and judicial conferences - working in collaboration with lawyers and magistrates to explain how FASD affects a child's development and abilities, how these may present and implications for people working in the justice system
  • successful NHMRC grant application to evaluate the need for, feasibility and effectiveness of two interventions to improve the identification and management of youth with FASD in the justice system
  • successful Department of the Attorney General Criminal Confiscation of Property Grant application to develop on-learning education packages, short videos and resources for justice professionals