12 May 2016

Calls for offenders to be screened for neurodisability

From Nine To Noon, 9:18 am on 12 May 2016

Amidst calls for inmates to be screened for neuro-disabilities, a woman has told Nine to Noon how her grandson, who suffers from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, was jailed as a teenager.

Prison bars, hands, generic

Research suggests that people with neuro-disabilities are highly over-represented in prisons. (File photo) Photo: 123RF

Eleanor Bensemann raised her grandson, who was born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and another intellectual disability.

At 19 he has already spent eight months in prison.

Research suggests that people with neuro-disabilities are highly over-represented in prisons. Neuro-disabilities include learning differences like dyslexia, through to Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Ms Bensemann told Nine to Noon as a child her grandson appeared to be "perfectly normal".

"He was a very cute, lovely little boy.

"As he grew older... schooling became quite difficult for him, but we still didn't really think that there was anything wrong."

Pregnant belly

Eleanor Bensemann's grandson suffers from Foetal Spectrum Alcohol Disorder. Photo: / CC BY 2.0

He was not diagnosed with FASD, and another intellectual disability, until he was 10 years old, which was also when Ms Bensemann's husband, who was her grandson's main caregiver, died from Motor Neurone disease.

"Then I was left as a solo parent to raise him, and his behaviour became very very difficult."

She said it was hard to get help for her grandson because agencies were used to dealing with children who had been abused.

There was evidence that if children were diagnosed early and given support, then it was possible to avoid them getting into trouble with the police, Ms Bensemann said.
Her grandson was eventually sentenced to two years under the Intellectual Disability (Compulsory Care and Rehabilitation) Act.

"That was not a great time for him and he has been in and out of the justice system ever since."

During this time authorities decided he did not have an intellectual disability, so all his support was taken away. He ended up in prison after becoming homeless.

FASD was not by itself recognised as a disability in New Zealand, Ms Bensemann said. Another intellectual disability was also needed to make him eligible for support.

"A lot of these kids don't have ... a diagnosed intellectual disability and they get no support whatsoever, or help.

"And their parents are just screaming out for help and they don't get it, because they don't fit the criteria.

"The system, I feel, just doesn't know how to deal with people. Prison isn't appropriate, but there is no other choice really."

She said people like her grandson's suffered symptoms included acting without thinking of the consequences, poor control of emotions, being easily lead and susceptible to peer pressure, and desperately wanting to fit in. This made them susceptible to being recruited by gangs.

NZ Institute for Educational and Developmental Psychologists chair Rose Blackett said police and the courts should screen offenders with neuro-disabilities, and more resources were needed for agencies who dealt with people with the condition the issue.

She said the structure and biological makeup their brains meant they were not capable of making reasonable decisions.

"(They) are being set up to fail within a system."

The Dyslexia Foundation is hosting a forum today to bring together representatives from a range of government ministries to explore the shared characteristics of neuro-disabilities, and why they make people vulnerable when they come into contact with police or the courts.

Read other RNZ coverage:

  • http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/256648/plea-for-foetal-alcohol-sydrome-action