U of A research looks at fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in male offenders

(Edmonton) A team of University of Alberta researchers have been examining adult male criminal offenders for signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

“Very little is known about adult men with this disorder,” says Sharon Brintnell, an occupational therapy professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and the director of the project. “We want to develop a more sensitive profile of men with FASD so that we may better match them with the resources they need in the community.”

The research project, called the 3C Project, Corrections and Connections to the Community, examines men jailed at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre. The research literature indicates that the prison population contains individuals with FASD, and the project included an assessment and diagnostic component to identify affected people. The often unrecognizable symptoms of their lifelong organic brain dysfunction can affect impulse control and judgment and thus result in incarceration. 

“Within the project, the men are of normal size and appearance but suffer from major brain impairments,” says Patricia Bailey, a research assistant working on the 3C project. “There is a great need for more research into this population and an even greater need for services to support them on the ground.”

Alberta Health Services, Seniors and Community Supports, the solicitor general and public security approached Brintnell to head the research project after she completed a similar project focusing only on females. The community partner in 3C is Bosco Homes.

“The government has built a provincial network of resources and programs that deal with FASD but they are mostly oriented towards women and children,” says Brintnell. “They asked me to design a project that could offer diagnostic services to men.”

Beginning in January of 2010, researchers set up a temporary clinic at the corrections site and conducted clinical assessments of the inmates in order to diagnose those who may have FASD. Inmates underwent neuropsychological assessments, clinical and facial feature examinations to determine who had FASD.

“We ended up with 49 participants in four cohorts,” says Bailey. “Each participant did a 10-week mind, body and spirit program examining personal and community life skills and exercise habits.”

One of the goals of the research project is to determine what can be done to ensure inmates with FASD do not become repeat offenders. The program aims to identify the provisions needed, both in and out of prison, in order for released prisoners to improve their quality of life, avoid falling into old behavioural patterns and establish a healthier and crime-free lifestyle on release.

“Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can include fetal alcohol syndrome but it describes a much wider range of brain, functionality and behaviour impairments,” says Bailey. “The effective provision of services is crucial to keeping these men in the community and out of jail.”

Once the data has been analyzed, the 3C Project team plans to make official recommendations for community programs to assist men with FASD being released from prison. Brintnell looks forward to the changes that the results may bring.

“I would love to develop a stable program in the community for men with FASD to establish healthy living habits, practice work skills and exercise,” says Brintnell. “We are into new territory with this project. It is an opportunity not to be wasted.”