The 2016 Neurodisabilities Forum, hosted by Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand (DFNZ), was convened to discuss how neurodisabilities create vulnerability when they come into contact with the justice system, as evidenced by gross over-representation of neurodisabilities in NZ court and prison statistics.
The Forum report, available for download from this page, outlined key recommendations for change in the justice system. The report recommended the Government take urgent action to either raise the Youth Court age or introduce an alternate mechanism to refer vulnerable people with neurodisabilities down to Youth Court. Subsequent to this, in December 2016, the Government announced that the New Zealand Youth Court age would be raised to 18, with the change to be effective by 2019. This is a positive first step towards a more responsive court system for vulnerable youth. However, other key changes are necessary to ensure that vulnerable youth are recognised and appropriately responded to throughout the justice process.
Other recommendations from the Forum report included that urgent funding and resourcing be made available for a specific study on the prevalence of neurodisability in the New Zealand justice system; and that front line police and other justice practitioners are equipped with better knowledge as to how neurodisabilities present and how best to manage this. A further outcome from the Forum was development of an introductory resource in this area – The Neurodisability Tendencies Checklist – this can also be downloaded from this page.
There are a number of reasons why neurodisabilities make young people vulnerable in the justice system. These can include different degrees of comprehension and social (dis)comfort in social situations, along with behaviours that might be perceived as hostility, acting out or evidence of guilt. In reality, these are often coping mechanisms often perceived as survival for the individual with neurodisabilities and have no pejorative meaning.
Neurodisabilities do not discriminate – they cross over socio-economic, ethnic, and cultural boundaries. They are often co-morbid, and can be intergenerational. It is estimated that up to 80% of young people in the Youth Court have at some point been subject to a Child, Youth & Family (CYF) notification. It is likely that, in many of these cases, family circumstances are underpinned or compounded by neurodisabilities.
The 2016 Neurodisabilities Forum was held in Wellington on 12 May 2016 and attended by a broad cross section of more than 60 key stakeholders in the justice, health, education, social development and disability sectors. The Forum was opened by Hon Nicky Wagner, Minister for Disabilities, and keynote addresses were delivered by Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft (now Children’s Commissioner) and Chair of the NZ Institute for Educational and Developmental Psychologists Rose Blackett. Other speakers included Dr Ian Lambie, Associate Professor, Auckland University, Dr Katie Bruce of JustSpeak, Phil Dinham of CYF Youth Justice Support, Dr Nessa Lynch from Victoria University Faculty of Law, FASD-CAN’s Eleanor Bensemann, Sally Kedge from Talking Trouble, Sonia Thursby from YES Disability, and Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand Chair of Trustees Guy Pope-Mayell.