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Ninety per cent of incarcerated youths have a brain disorder: study

Australian researchers say a shocking 90 per cent of young people in detention have at least one severe brain disorder and they hope their findings will act as a "catalyst for change" in the justice system.

The Telethon Kids Institute study of about 100 young people aged 10 to 17 incarcerated at Western Australia’s only youth detention facility, Banksia Hill Detention Centre, found 89 per cent had at least one area of severe neurodevelopmental impairment, such as problems with memory, cognition, motor skills or attention.

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'Society has failed these children'

An alarming study into the cognitive abilities of young people in detention in Australia has found severe neurodevelopmental impairment in almost every child assessed.

“What they do is socially unacceptable but it’s arisen from a brain that isn’t working properly, and that underlying, innate difference of brain function has not been previously recognised nor understood,” Dr Raewyn Mutch, a paediatrician and one of the researchers, said.

The team originally planned to focus on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) - a neurodevelopmental disorder caused by an unborn child's exposure to alcohol in the womb - but were startled by the prevalence of neurodisability in the cohort.

"We found that 89 per cent of the sentenced young people had at least one severe neurodevelopmental impairment, whether they had FASD or not,” Professor Carol Bower, director of FASD Research Australia, said.

“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."


Most of the youths had not been diagnosed with any brain disorder prior to the study, despite multiple contacts with government and other agencies.

In regards to FASD, the team found 36 of the 99 who completed full assessments had the disorder. In this group, only two youths had been previously diagnosed.

Professor Bower said this was the highest known prevalence of FASD in a custodial/corrective setting in the world and almost double the previous highest Australian estimate in a non-custodial setting.

Dr Mutch, who conducted the assessments, said the study highlighted the need for earlier diagnosis and intervention.

"More importantly, it may have permitted alternative community care with targeted health and educational interventions and rehabilitation," she said.

They hope the study will act as a catalyst for change in the network of health, education and justice systems.

“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.

The Department of Justice WA told Fairfax Media it will roll out, in conjunction with the institute, new training resources for staff on Wednesday.

It will also use the findings to further develop a new model of care, which will include specialised staff training and the delivery of cultural programs. It will soon be implemented at Banksia Hill.

"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 said.

"Through early identification, government and non-government services will be able to provide through-care plans, with interventions that deliver better outcomes to young people."

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."

Following the study, the team prepared a report for each young person in a bid to help detention centre staff. The report covers their specific difficulties and areas of strength.

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.

The study was published in BMJ Open on Wednesday.