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Facing the Challenge: FASD and Frontline Policing

Donna Hassman, Sergeant, Regina Police Service
Michelle Stewart PhD, Assistant Professor, Justice Studies, University of Regina

Summary: This article discusses some of the challenges frontline police encounter when working with someone who has FASD, highlighting some areas where changes can, and are, being made to help bring about better justice outcomes for individuals with FASD.

The goal of this article is to offer a snapshot of the challenges frontline police officers face when working with individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). The piece is co-authored by Sgt. Donna Hassman, who has been in policing for 15 years in Regina, and Michelle Stewart, who conducts research about FASD focusing on frontline workers and the criminal justice system. All examples and references to policy and practices are particular to Canada, with implications in other locations.

Research indicates individuals with FASD are more likely to have negative contact with police and be disproportionately represented in jails. Recent practices out of the Yukon include the wellness court project[1] and innovative sentencing practices to ensure those with FASD are better able to meet bail conditions. This paper will step from the courtroom to the streets to understand the circumstances and experiences of police as they encounter individuals before a court appearance.

Identifying a Disability During the Police Encounter

When police officers respond to a call, they must first deal with the immediate threat. Their primary role is to de-escalate a volatile situation and restore the peace. In so doing, police are not thinking about the underlying challenges someone faces, because their role is to secure public safety. It is only after public safety is addressed that police can begin taking statement(s), conducting interviews, and giving rights and warnings. In the case of youth, police must read each element of their rights and have them sign each section to indicate their understanding. The next stage of this encounter may include explaining the charge and booking.

It is during this process that a police officer might become suspicious that the individual is grappling with challenges—such as cognitive or mental health issues. Although police do ask individuals if they have any medical conditions during booking there is no obligation to self-report. Many people have not been diagnosed with FASD, and others might not want to divulge a stigmatized condition such as FASD. When working with individuals who have FASD, the effects (cognitive, physical and behavioral) are not always visible. It is only through communication and contact that FASD might become apparent. Police are not medically trained and must exercise caution before presuming someone has a cognitive disability. Moreover, there are numerous issues if police flag someone with suspected FASD:

  • Health Information Protection Act: There are laws that prohibit police from accessing private health records, which means there are limited opportunities for police to legally access information to confirm an FASD diagnosis. Even a self-disclosure of FASD requires confirmation.
  • Stigmatization: Flagging a person’s file as suspected FASD could have unexpected consequences for the person.

Recent reports from the Office of the Correctional Investigator have discussed the over-representation of minority populations inside prisons, including Aboriginal people.[2] Reports also discussed the increased likelihood that Aboriginal people will have underlying circumstances that contribute to criminal activity (violence, trauma and the legacy of residential schools) alongside health conditions including FASD.[3] Consequently, more effective strategies are needed to intervene before individuals find themselves before the courts.

In the Canadian context, individuals are “treated equally” by police and before the courts.[4] This premise of equality is intended to produce justice for all. However, those with a disability that impairs their understanding might need to be treated differently. Police have some discretionary power prior to laying a charge. If police were given more training to identify signs of FASD they might be able to direct individuals to alternative measures rather than sending them before the courts. This is arguably more important when discussing youth deterrence programs created to keep youth out of the courts. Currently, there is a lack of appropriate places for police to intervene in the lives of youth or adults. Moreover, there is an absence of standardized practices (such as indicating FASD in a case file) and small interventions might go unnoticed.

Potential Ideas

Research shows that traditional punishment models will not work with individuals with FASD as cause and consequence are disconnected. As well, the lag time between a police encounter (whether as witness, victim or perpetrator) and court appearance can impede someone’s ability to present themselves (or the event) correctly. There is a need to rethink the justice encounter, including (from call to court appearance):

  • More file oversight and management: Police officers are often writing up their files as quickly as possible and then going to the next call. There would be a need for more officer training[5] but also for field training officers and other managers to agree that diverting FASD clients is a priority and to manage the file accordingly.
  • Dedicated dockets that try to account for the challenges these individuals face would help allow for case files that indicate a potential cognitive disability. These could include modified bail conditions (that are easier for individuals to understand), mentoring to assist individuals with meeting court requirements, and ongoing contact to ensure higher likelihood for success.

There is a critical need to find other ways of working with individuals that have FASD when they encounter the justice system. Part of that work is to make individuals more stable and give them access to appropriate resources in their communities. This is not the work of the police and courts alone; for effective change to come about all sectors must assist those with FASD.[6] To learn more about available resources for the frontline, visit

Local Practices to Respond to Local Needs

Following her interviews with police officers across the province, Stewart’s research team created a website for frontline workers. This site aggregated the materials that police officers indicated would be most helpful to them. The response to the page has been positive and been discussed by police and FASD advocates alike. The research team is currently aggregating publicly available scholarly articles for those that are seeking the next level of material, including peer-reviewed articles and evidence-based academic research that can be useful when creating new policy.

Author biographies:

Donna Hassman has been involved in a sustained local collaboration that brings together health practitioners and community organizations in conversation with members of the criminal justice system to strategize new practices for FASD clients. Hassman has facilitated a series of shift briefings that saw a local judge conduct short FASD trainings for each shift of patrol officers. She also created a training opportunity for local school liaison officers and those involved in community policing. She has dedicated her attention to finding and providing more training opportunities.

Michelle Stewart, PhD, is also involved in the collaboration that brings together health practitioners, community organizations and members of the criminal justice system. Her current work focuses on risk and prevention, with attention to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and how FASD is understood by frontline workers. She is particularly concerned with FASD as it relates to the criminal justice system. Working with her research team, Stewart is attempting to find resources that might aid frontline workers and the courts in seeking out better justice outcomes for those individuals with FASD. Michelle Stewart is an assistant professor in justice studies. Her work is supported by grants from the university as well as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Development Grant.


[1] See for more information on the Yukon Community Wellness Court.

[2] For more information please see the Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2012-2013 released November 2013:

[3] For more information please consult the report, “Good Intentions, Bad Results: A Progress Report on Federal Aboriginal Corrections” that can be accessed here:

[4] While conducting interviews with frontline officers, concerns were raised about the role of equality. Frontline officers are willing to consider that FASD might be a factor contributing to an individual’s behavior but they are extremely cautious to move beyond that understanding and assert that FASD diagnosis cannot serve as a “get out of jail free card” as each individual is nevertheless going to be treated equally under the rule of law. A special investigation two years ago by the Winnipeg Free Press highlight some of the many challenges facing youth and adults when they encounter the criminal justice system. In this piece Corey LaBerge, now Manitoba’s Child Advocate, argues that the number of children with FASD is only going to increase and arresting them won’t resolve the issue. For the multi-part series see:

[5] See for example: which provides training modules for justice professionals, and which offers the FASD Guidebook for Police Officers, published by the RCMP.

[6] To find more information on FASD and the justice system, please see the final draft of the Consensus Statement on Legal Issues of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), from the Edmonton, Alberta conference held in September 2013


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