Australian Broadcasting Commission, Online, AM, 11 January 2007, journalist Anne Barker
TONY EASTLEY: It’s proven that women who drink in pregnancy risk causing life-long health problems for their unborn children.
What isn’t so well known is that there’s growing evidence that foetal alcohol disorders, as they’re known, are a major cause of crime.
A Canadian lawyer is in Darwin this week talking to judges and barristers about the impact of foetal alcohol.
Anne Barker reports.
ANNE BARKER: It’s common knowledge that women who drink when they’re pregnant can cause permanent and serious brain damage to the unborn child.
But only now is a growing body of research revealing the scale of foetal alcohol disorders in the western world.
One man who has witnessed the consequences of alcohol induced delinquency over 20 years is Canadian barrister David Boulding.
DAVID BOULDING: Alcohol acts like nail polish remover on your nails. It dissolves brain cells. And when the brain cells are not there, the brain is missing brain function.
So you get kids who are impulsive, suggestive, no abstract thinking, memory problems, learning problems, attention problems.
ANNE BARKER: David Boulding believes one to two per cent of the population has some form of life-long disability caused even before they were born. And contrary to popular belief, he says they’re more likely to come from an affluent background.
DAVID BOULDING: Rich, white stockbrokers have wives who drink while they are pregnant.
The University of California just did a huge multi-year study and they found out that women that drink the most while they are pregnant are white, with four years of university education, earning 400 per cent above the poverty line.
ANNE BARKER: Wealthy or not, youngsters with foetal alcohol disorders, whether it’s learning problems or memory loss appear to account for a staggering proportion of delinquents.
In the only study of its kind in one Canadian province, one quarter of young offenders were found to have some form of permanent foetal alcohol syndrome.
David Boulding says there’s a clear connection to crime.
DAVID BOULDING: They really are missing that little voice. That superior, frontal lobe conscience part of the brain that knows right and wrong.
But also they are alone. They don’t have friends, they’ll do anything to please people. They will confess to murder, they’ll hold the gun, they’ll drive the get away car.
ANNE BARKER: David Boulding is in the Northern Territory this week as a guest of the Aboriginal justice agency NAAJA, which represents Indigenous offenders in court.
One NAAJA lawyer Stewart O’Connell says despite the clear impact of alcohol on crime in the NT, the prevalence of foetal alcohol syndrome is virtually unknown.
STEWART O’CONNELL: We are locking Aboriginal people up in jail at a greater rate than ever before. The sentences are getting longer, and it’s not working.
And we have to ask the question – why is it not working? And one of the reasons may be because of things such as foetal alcohol syndrome.
ANNE BARKER: And David Boulding says while nothing can ever reverse foetal alcohol disorders, a recognition of the problem would lead to more effective solutions than jail.
He says it’s already working in Canada.
DAVID BOULDING: Every probation officer, every judge, every lawyer has got stories where somebody took and interest in somebody and made sure, okay he’s not going to hang out with those guys any more, he’s not going to go there any more. I’m going to get him some kind of job maybe, even if it’s volunteer work, he’s going to have new friends.
And guess what? The crime stops.
TONY EASTLEY: Canadian barrister David Boulding talking to Anne Barker in Darwin.