The Telethon Kids Institute undertook a study of 100 young people incarcerated at Banksia Hill Detention Centre in Western Australia between the ages of 10-17.
The study found 89 per cent had at least one area of severe neurodevelopmental impairment, such as problems with memory, cognition, motor skills or attention.
Research was initially planned to focus on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), but soon found the majority of young people at Banksia Hill Detention Centre had a neurodevelopmental impairment regardless of FASD.
“Almost half of the young people had severe problems with language, how to listen and understand and how to reply and explain what they think,” Professor Carol Bower, director of FASD Research Australia explained.
Just over 30 per cent of the children assessed in the study had FASD. Prior to the study, most youths were not diagnosed with any brain disorder.
Dr Raewyn Mutch, a paediatrician and one of the researchers who conducted the assessments said the study has exposed the need for early diagnosis and intervention. This is the highest known prevalence of FASD in a custodial/corrective setting in the world; almost double the previous highest Australian estimate in a non-custodial setting.
“We recommend that young people be fully assessed on entry into the juvenile justice system and preferably much, much sooner, at their first encounter with the law or before, so their vulnerabilities are recognised, and specific and appropriate interventions and care plans can be put in place,” Professor Bower said.
WA Corrective Services Minister Fran Logan said Banksia Hill staff had been aware of the symptoms of these neurological impairments, but did not know what caused them.
“The challenge now is to adapt the approach to the management of these highly complex young people in detention,” he said. “There are several other initiatives involving cross-government departments, which are being developed or going through Cabinet, that will also go towards addressing what is an entrenched and complicated matter.”
“The department recognises that full neurodevelopmental assessments of young people who are considered to be at risk of FASD at the earliest possible point is an important step forward,” a spokesman for Department of Justice WA said.
About a quarter of the young people were found to have intellectual disability, with an IQ score at or below 70. Only 11 who completed full assessments had no domains of severe neurodevelopmental impairment. Seventy-four per cent were Indigenous Australians.
*With files from The Sydney Morning Herald