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Fetal alcohol disorder advocate calls for inquiry into inmate’s death

CBC with Michelle Stewart 13 November 2019

A Canadian advocate for people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is calling for a public inquiry into a recent prison death.

“There needs to be accountability in the justice system,” said Michelle Stewart, a University of Regina associate professor who focuses on supporting people with FASD.

“When people are in custody, they experience a particular form of vulnerability and they can’t necessarily speak for themselves.”

Inuk Jonathan Henoche, 33, who died at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary on Nov. 6, had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, said his lawyer, Bob Buckingham. The Labrador man was awaiting trial on a murder charge after Regula Schule was found dead in her burning home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in 2016.

Newfoundland and Labrador should do more to support people with the condition, said Stewart.

“We can look to the example that unfortunately we have in [Newfoundland and Labrador] of someone who is sitting in remand for over three years and we have some questions to ask there,” she said.

“You know, were their needs being met? If someone has a complex disability and they are sitting in a correctional facility, were their needs being met?”

Stewart is part of a group that has received almost $1 million from the federal government to help indigenous people with the disorder navigate the justice systems in Saskatchewan and Yukon.

The Saskatchewan program to help Indigenous people with FASD navigate the justice system is only a few months old, but Stewart says it will work, and she hopes it will be expanded to other parts of the country.

“I do anticipate that we are going to see results. It is based on evidence and it’s based on other practices. It’s a resource that’s desperately needed, I think, across Canada,” said Stewart.

People with FASD, which affects the brain and the body, have a greater chance of winding up in the justice system.

Retired judge says there’s not enough support

Retired judge Bill English says it was common to see people with FASD in his courtroom while he served in Labrador until 2014.

He doesn’t believe people with FASD received the help they required.

“No, I don’t believe there was adequate support. The lack of support started in the communities that many of these people came from,” said English, who noted that he would often see Schule in court helping people with FASD navigate the justice system.

“Our system in designed to determine and allocate blame, and one of the problems with people with FASD is that they have poor judgment and poor impulse control.”

English fears this is still the case in Newfoundland and Labrador’s health-care, education and justice systems.

“I think the challenges are severe and I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point yet where the system is adequate to cope with people who have FASD,” said English.

He also believes that some people who may have FASD aren’t being diagnosed with the disorder.

“Part of the problem is that we often don’t know that, for instance, the person before the courts dealing with a lawyer, dealing with the police, or the penitentiary, that they have this condition. That makes it a case of working blind,” said English.

Police and the province’s chief medical officer are investigating Henoche’s death.

Michelle Stewart is a Justice Studies professor at the University of Regina.