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Joseph Cloutier


Wrong place, wrong time

One man’s crusade to keep people with FASD out of jail

Joseph Cloutier, 52, from the Ojibway First Nations, still recalls the doors of the Kingston Penitentiary closing behind him. “It was scary,” he says, with a nervous laugh. Forced to leave behind all his possessions and enter the prison with nothing but the clothes on his back, Cloutier remembers feeling intimidated by the police officers and guards with their guns. Fortunately for Cloutier, he was at the maximum-security prison only as a visitor to share his story with Aboriginal inmates, particularly his experience of having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

FASD, a broad term describing birth defects and conditions in people who were exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, carries various physical, mental, behavioural and learning problems. These include misunderstanding cause and effect, difficulty learning from past experience and a tendency toward impulsive behaviours—all of which can lead to conflict with the law. According to the John Howard Society of Ontario, 60 per cent of people with FASD over age 12 have been charged with or convicted of a crime. Estimates place the rate of FASD inside Canadian prisons at 10 times higher than in the general population.

While Aboriginal people are also overrepresented in the criminal justice system, initial research indicating that FASD is higher among Aboriginals is now in dispute. A 2003 review published by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation suggested that disruptive, challenging behaviours attributed to FASD may be caused by other traumatic life experiences to which Aboriginal people have been subjected, particularly the legacy of the residential schools.

What is clear, however, is that Aboriginal people with FASD make up a disproportionate percentage of people in prison. It’s a situation that Cloutier is fighting to change.

Growing up, Cloutier, whose handsome features include an ever present impish smile, faced many learning challenges in school. “I had a hard time communicating from my head to my hand,” he says. The teacher would be erasing the blackboard by the time he had copied the first sentence. When he was about 7, physicians labeled him “mentally challenged,” for which his schoolmates teased him. Cloutier never got an official diagnosis of FASD, but he recalls being told that he had a brain disorder, explained as malfunctioning brain circuits, which stemmed from his mother having an alcohol problem.

Cloutier was adopted and raised in Sudbury as a little girl until he was 5, when he discovered he was actually a boy. He was mentally, physically and sexually abused by his adoptive father. When he finished high school, his parents placed him in a group home. But Cloutier felt he didn’t fit in with the other residents, who had developmental disabilities, so he left and went to live on the streets for about 10 years, first in Toronto, then across the United States. He started breaking into homes and stealing jewellery and money, which he saw as gifts that would help him make friends. “I was easily led into doing things like breaking into a car to get a car stereo,” he says. But one day he was caught.

That’s when Cloutier learned to use the labels he had been given growing up to his advantage. “I told them I had a sickness, that I was mentally disturbed,” he says. The police accepted his story, and he never ended up with a criminal record.

The close calls were the impetus Cloutier needed to return to Sudbury and turn his life around. He learned that he was from the Sagamok Anishnawbek Reserve in Massey, Ont. There he met some family members, learned that he was Ojibway and discovered the identity of his mother, but nothing about his birth father. He received support for his FASD–related challenges, including reading and writing, as well as counselling for sexual abuse. He also began to accept himself as two-spirited.

It was around that time that Cloutier began volunteering with charitable organizations to raise awareness about FASD. He has visited inmates at medium- and maximum-security prisons across Ontario. Recently, Cloutier spoke at a justice conference in Winnipeg, for which he received a standing ovation.

He has seen improvements in how FASD is dealt with in the justice system. The justice workers he meets are eager to learn about the disorder and how to support people who have it. Cloutier also speaks at schools in the hope that awareness of FASD may get students the help they need early and steer them away from criminal involvement.

The neurological and behavioural effects of FASD create challenges throughout the criminal justice process for those affected by it. Cloutier hears one concern over and over from inmates: “The consensus is that things are being said and done too quickly for them to grasp what is really going on,” he says. Inmates tell him that they need someone to sit down with them and clearly explain their rights, the implications of what is happening and any documents they are asked to sign. Otherwise, says Cloutier, “they could be charged with murder, even though they never murdered anybody and they’re penalized without understanding what’s going on.”

Cloutier wants people living with FASD to know that they can lead good lives. “Just through my being there and sharing my story, inmates have expressed hope in the possibility of functioning normally in society when they become eligible for release,” says Cloutier. “I encourage them to look for services to enable them to start a new positive life.”

After all, Cloutier did it: “I have a lovely wife, a home, a bed that I can sleep in and a meal that I can cook. I can hold my head up high and say I did something good today.”

A poor fit between FASD and the criminal justice system

People with FASD face challenges at all stages of the criminal justice system. The John Howard Society of Ontario explains why:

Trouble with assessment, judgment and reasoning. This makes it hard to make good choices and to consider long-term goals. People with FASD are more vulnerable to manipulation and coercion, which puts them at higher risk of giving false confessions.

Poor memory. Poor memory can make a person vulnerable when trying to recall events during a criminal investigation. People with FASD may be at risk of incriminating themselves during a police interrogation or court hearing.

Misunderstanding cause and effect. Connecting cause and effect is key to the concept of deterrence. This means that punishment is unlikely to prevent similar behaviour in the future. If a person with FASD commits a crime and is later convicted, they may not be able to connect the two events.

Inability to generalize. Connecting similar but separate events requires being able to apply knowledge gained from one situation to a new situation. For example, a person with FASD may learn that they will go to jail for cocaine possession, but may not understand that they will also go to jail for heroin possession.

Inability to think abstractly. Individuals with FASD often struggle to understand basic concepts in math, money and time, as well as rules and laws. This difficulty with abstraction means that many people with FASD cannot imagine or consider the future. This places them at risk during plea bargaining, sentencing and parole hearings.

Difficulty planning. Planning requires the ability to envision the future and achieve goals through a series of complex steps. Difficulty doing this can lead to impulsive behaviour. It also makes it difficult for people with FASD to be deterred from committing a crime, so recidivism rates are high.

Trouble in school. Due to no diagnosis or misdiagnosis, people with FASD often struggle in school. Education is strongly linked with preventing criminal behaviour and recidivism.

Self-medicating. Some people with FASD self-medicate with illegal drugs, which may lead to addiction and conflict with the law.

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Related links

Correctional Service Canada

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and the Criminal Justice System: A Poor Fit (PDF)

Canadian FASD Training Online Database

FASD ONE Justice Committee

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and the Youth Criminal Justice System

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome among Aboriginal People in Canada

Government of Alberta FASD website

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