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Innovative FASD Intersectoral Training and Judge-Led Discussion in Saskatchewan

Betty Ann Pottruff

Carol SnellBetty Ann Pottruff, QC [Queen’s Counsel], Executive Director, Strategic Initiatives and Program Support Branch, Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice
Hon. Carol Snell, Chief Judge, Provincial Court of Saskatchewan

Summary: The authors describe the process of convening a multi-location FASD training designed to increase information-sharing and collaboration among organizations working with individuals affected by FASD


 

Recognizing the challenges persons with FASD face in the criminal justice system, both for those with the disorder and those who work with them, leaders of the Saskatchewan criminal justice community sought to improve responsiveness through increased awareness and collaboration.

The FASD & Justice Educational and Discussion Event—the first video-conference event hosted on the Saskatchewan Provincial Court video conferencing network—was designed to engage justice system and related human services–delivery professionals in the development of multi-disciplinary strategies aimed at improving identification of and responses to offenders, victims and witnesses affected by FASD.

The event featured a morning presentation by Corey La Berge (former accommodation counsel for Youth Living with FASD: Legal Aid, Manitoba) recorded at the Regina Provincial Court and simultaneously broadcasted live to 11 other provincial court locations around the province of Saskatchewan. In the afternoon, two dozen members of the judiciary facilitated group discussions using common themes in the 12 locations.

Four criteria were identified for a successful outcome. First, participants from a wide spectrum of sectors who interact with individuals with FASD were invited. Participants in attendance included 400 professionals from community-based organizations (Aboriginal Tribal Councils and other non-governmental organizations); workers in the education and health sectors; adult and youth corrections; lawyers; police; victim services workers; Aboriginal court workers; and justice officials. Each of the 12 locations was to be supported by a subject-matter expert volunteer from the Saskatchewan FASD Support Network.

Secondly, La Berge provided an introduction to FASD in the criminal justice system to ensure that this varied group of participants had at least a common basic level of understanding of the issues. Third, discussions were decentralized to better identify culturally appropriate programs, policies and practices that could best respond to the needs of individuals in each community. Participants were encouraged to consider solutions within the scope of community capacities, including using diversion and alternative measures.

Finally, while the judges were not constrained about how the afternoon discussion unfolded, a pre-event preparatory session with the judges provided an overview of the key underlying goals of the event. At the preparatory session, facilitators were provided with a ‘facilitator’s guide’. The guide included a more detailed version of the schedule as well as a case study and detailed list of suggested questions. The facilitators were also given a list of participants registered in their region and the sectors they represented so that they were aware of the level of diversity of opinions/contributions they might expect or call upon.

On registration, participants were provided with a suggested schedule describing the basic format of the day’s activities. The schedule, which included suggested discussion topics, gave participants an idea of what they might expect and an opportunity to consider how they might contribute. Supplementary documents also provided to participants in advance of the event included an inventory of FASD & Justice Educational and Discussion Event educational and training programs and a list of (often free) online resources.

A ratio of one judge for every 15–20 participants ensured that judges could lead manageable but representative groups based on the participants in attendance. Although invited, not all sectors were represented at every location. Judges adapted discussions to suit local circumstances—the case study, for instance, was not used in every location. In smaller communities where many participants knew one another, discussion quickly focused on identifying opportunities for intersectoral cooperation. In larger communities participants focused on learning about existing resources.

Note takers were nominated from each discussion group and their notes, along with the results of a post-event online survey, have since been summarized in an event report which has been distributed to participants. Myths and misconceptions identified from the discussion notes were addressed by the organizing committee as “clarifications” in the report.

There were some of the expected challenges that arise when participants from such varied backgrounds work together, with some participants feeling overwhelmed by new data and others feeling that discussions were too basic/general. Overall, however, participants reported satisfaction with the event and expressed great appreciation for the opportunity to put faces to names and to start a dialogue with potential colleagues from other sectors.

Many participants reported surprise at how different agency mandates create different points of view and challenges, such as the competing pressures police experience in balancing public safety with accommodation for persons with or suspected of having FASD, or how privacy regulations limit what information various agencies can share about individuals with FASD. The discussions also helped participants gain a better understanding of other sectors’ procedures and policies. From the local discussion notes, it was evident that many participants used the event to network and to share information about programs and services available in their regions.

The event was designed to develop a culture of intersectoral communication and cooperation for dealing appropriately with individuals with FASD. As such, participants agreed to continue the dialogue in their communities and many of these new informal networks have continued to meet post-event.

Building on these discussions, the Regina and Saskatoon provincial courts have recently adopted mental health approaches aimed at improving the ability of the court to deal appropriately with persons suffering from a mental illness or cognitive disability. At this stage, a key goal of the strategy is the systematic collection of information about possible community support options to inform judicial decision making and to improve outcomes for accused/offenders.

Another recent development is an online resource to support police and justice professionals provided through a website maintained by the faculty-led University of Regina FASD research team. The website includes the presentation from Corey La Berge and other materials developed nationally to educate justice professionals.

Materials relevant to this event and ongoing developments:

Author biographies:

Hon. Carol Snell is the chief judge of the Provincial Court of Saskatchewan, a trial court of 49 judges who sit in 13 permanent court locations and service 67 additional circuit point locations throughout the province, including 18 of which are First Nations locations. The court deals with a broad range of criminal offences, from minor to very serious, and determines bail on all offences other than murder. The judges of the court have been concerned for some time that many accused persons who have FASD or a mental illness are not identified to the court as having such issues, which could lead to injustices and inappropriate treatment during trials and sentencing proceedings. In addition, there was a concern that victims and other witnesses who may have FASD might not be identified as such to the court, resulting in a failure to deal with these persons appropriately. Judge Snell had requested that an intersectoral group of justice stakeholders get together to consider how to address these concerns. The event described in this article was the result of that collaborative effort.

Betty Ann Pottruff, QC [Queen’s Counsel] is the executive director of the Strategic Initiatives and Program Support Branch of the Ministry of Justice for the province of Saskatchewan. She is a lawyer with extensive experience in criminal and family law. As well, she manages a branch of 10 staff who provide policy, legal, evaluation/program review, research, and project implementation support to senior managers on a wide range of justice issues—from therapeutic courts to implementation of federal criminal and family law reforms—and participates in a range of intergovernmental, inter-ministry and interagency justice forums. This includes forums dealing with FASD and the justice system. She wishes to acknowledge the support of Karol Douglas, policy analyst in her branch, in developing this article.

 

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