Trainee Series: Over-Represented Yet Under-Resourced: Exploring FASD in the Justice System

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Written by Hannah Denberg, member of the 2024 CanFASD Trainee Program.

My Research Interests  

As a Master’s of health sciences student, I am driven by a motivation to explore the social determinants of health (the non-medical factors). In particular, I am interested in those determinants that influence the health and well-being of individuals, communities, and populations.  My background in health sciences, as well as being a CanFASD trainee, has led to an interest in interdisciplinary approaches to thinking. As such, I find myself drawn to the intersections between health and justice.  

Within the justice system, there remains a population that is overrepresented, yet unfortunately also overlooked: individuals with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). By utilizing an interdisciplinary approach, I hope to gain a more nuanced and holistic understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by individuals with FASD in the current legal framework.   

The Current Project 

My journey into better understanding the intersections between FASD and justice began through conversations with key interest holders in New Brunswick. I realized that there has been much dialogue around the pathways to justice involvement among individuals with FASD. However, the justice system has given less attention to their unique trajectories and experiences once they encounter the system. Engaging in such conversations, I found myself both surprised and curious. I wondered, how does the justice system overlook such an overrepresented population? 

This noticeable gap conceptualized the two research questions that I am currently investigating:  

(1) What do justice professionals in New Brunswick know, think, and do about FASD?; and (2) What are the most effective ways of educating and training justice professionals? 

Recognizing the importance of valuing living experiences, I aim to delve into the living experiences of justice professionals to better understand the challenges they encounter.  I also want to explore strategies that can support both justice-involved individuals with FASD and the professionals supporting them. 

What do we know from the early insights? 

Through ongoing surveys and semi-structured interviews with justice professionals – inclusive of correctional officers, police officers, and lawyers – initial insights have been generated, all of which converge into one main theme: An over-represented population in an under-resourced system.   

Thus far, justice professionals have expressed unanimous frustration in that they are the last to receive the FASD diagnosis, the last to know how to work with it, and the last to have any resources available.  

It is not that justice professionals are unwilling to modify their practices. It is that they are unable to adapt their practices when working with justice-involved individuals with FASD until they have intervention information. This glimpse into the initial findings shed light on a major challenge faced by justice professionals, while also highlighting the potential for informed justice responses. They portray such resources as avenues to appropriate and effective supports and interventions.  

Exploring Potential Solutions: What can we do? 

These early insights highlight the lack of FASD-informed resources within the justice system. However, recognizing this gap is only the first step; we must also identify how we can bridge the gap between knowledge and practice through actionable solutions. Given that social justice and equity are fundamental prerequisites for health, some avenues I intend to explore as data collection progresses include: 

  • Creating supportive environments. How can we modify judicial and legal environments to leverage the strengths of justice-involved individuals with FASD? 
  • Building healthy public policy and strengthening community action. Recognizing that the justice sector exists within a broader system of service delivery, how can we promote interdisciplinary collaboration among the justice, health, and education sectors, among others, to foster optimal outcomes for individuals with FASD? 

Future Directions and Implications: Where do we go from here? 

Conducting research is about more than finding answers; it is a powerful tool that can drive impactful change. As someone passionate about promoting health equity and well-being, I have come to appreciate this transformative power of research. I am committed to ensuring that the findings are representative of a diverse range of justice professionals, to shape effective strategies to support both justice-involved individuals with FASD and professionals within the system.  

This is why I am excited to share that data collection remains ongoing! To ensure a diverse range of voices are heard, your contribution is welcomed and highly encouraged. Check out the attached poster to learn more about this study and on how you can participate!   

Get Involved: 

Interested in participating? If you:  

  • Are 19+ years of age; 
  • Are employed as a justice professional (e.g., police officer, correctional officer, judge, lawyer, etc.) in New Brunswick; and 
  • Currently reside in New Brunswick 

Click here (or scan the QR code on the attached poster) to fill out our survey! 

If you have any questions or comments, please reach out to me at 

Hannah Denberg HeadshotHannah Denberg is a Master’s of health sciences student at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is dedicated to promoting health equity and well-being for individuals, communities, and populations. As she continues her work in the field of FASD, Hannah hopes to contribute to meaningful change for individuals with FASD, their families, and the professionals working alongside them.  


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