Children's Commissioner calls for universal disability screening for kids at age five
The Children's Commissioner is calling for all children to be screened for developmental and learning disorders when they enter school.
Judge Andrew Becroft said identifying issues early could even out the playing field for children earlier in life, and allow authorities to target resources more efficiently.
His comments come as new Otago University legal research focuses on Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and a Ministry of Health plan to improve its detection and diagnosis, as well as education for pregnant mothers, gets underway.
FASD is an umbrella term for birth defects that can cause physical, cognitive, behavioural and emotional impairments.
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Health Ministry figures show at least two in five pregnancies in this country are unplanned, and half are exposed to alcohol, with one in 10 exposed to high levels of drinking.
Becroft believes the disorder has been under-diagnosed in New Zealand, meaning some young offenders in the past who were not flagged up in the justice system as needing special consideration due to FASD probably did not receive the kind of help they needed, and will now be in the adult court system.
"I think in 50 years' time, those of us who were in the youth justice system at this time will be judged quite harshly, it will be like we were sending blind people to prison for the offence of not being able to see."
Teina Pora's wrongful conviction was one high-profile case. He had been told there was a reward on offer for an unsolved crime and gave a false account to police that ultimately implicated him the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett when he was just 17.
Pora was diagnosed with FASD in 2014, revealing his mental capacity when he gave the 1993 police interviews would have been about that of an 8 to 10-year-old. The Privy Council quashed his conviction in 2015.
Becroft said he and Children's Commissioners before him supported the idea of a universal assessment for all children for learning and developmental disorders at age five, which could include screening for FASD, dyslexia, and other disorders.
A system where children with invisible disabilities went unnoticed could lead to a lifetime of being labelled "stupid" or a "criminal", and it was a particular risk for children also suffering abuse, he said.
"I just wonder if New Zealanders know how profoundly damaged these young people are."
The Health Ministry's advice is that there is no known safe drinking limit during pregnancy.
Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne's Taking Action on Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder action plan, launched last year, estimates that half of all of children in Child, Youth and Family (CYF) care currently have FASD.
The exact wider population rates are unknown. The plan identified the current state of the country's diagnostic services as underdeveloped.
Studies abroad have found youths with FASD were disproportionately represented in the courts, with one in 10 youths in custody in the United Kingdom suffering from the disorder, compared to one in 100 in the general population.