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Police: Early ADHD identification, treatment cut crime

October 8, 2009
by Dennis Grantham, Senior Editor
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International Conference workshop tells communities to diagnose ADHD early, help kids stay in school

Cleveland, OH – At a public workshop sponsored by the 21st International Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Conference, two British law-enforcement professionals asked area police officers, educators, and parents to look for new ways to identify, treat, and manage the social and criminal-justice impacts of young people with ADHD.

Using data from several British studies of ADHD children and their parents, retired officer Phil Anderton, PhD, and Stephen Brown, both of Lancashire, UK, explained that undetected and untreated ADHD puts young people at high risk for arrest, repeat offenses, and imprisonment. They outlined a dangerous spiral of ostracism, low self-esteem, and anti-social behavior, starting in ADHD children as young as age 6:

• Exclusion from social activities and childhood friendships due to impulsive behaviors;
• Depression, social withdrawal on the part of the child;
• Suspension or expulsion from school due to inappropriate behaviors or withdrawal due to academic problems;
• “Adoption” of the child by inappropriate friends, often older, who manipulate the child’s desire for acceptance through risky activities that often lead to crime; and,
• Escape from family stresses through substance abuse or runaway behavior.

The pair became aware of the role of ADHD almost a decade ago as they tried to understand why approximately 1,000 young offenders, about 25% a group involved in a regional crime-prevention study, were unresponsive to traditional intervention. “In many cases, if you lock up a teenager for four hours and call their parents,” Brown explained,” they are not going to get in trouble again.” But the unresponsive group persisted in crime, racking up more and more arrests on charges ranging from predatory crimes like muggings and fighting, to self-sufficiency crimes such as stealing and prostitution, to drug related crimes often associated with a substance addiction.

Looking for answers, the two stumbled upon a seminar about ADHD and began to see links with the behavior of young repeat offenders. They also learned of British studies that show ADHD youth are twice as twice as likely be arrested as their non-ADHD peers, and that, once they get involved in crime, they commit six times more crimes than other offenders.

The key to crime prevention, they said, is early identification and intervention of ADHD. Anderton outlined a series of key contacts—doctors, teachers, social workers, police officers, and judges—who can act as “tipping points” in the life of the child. “Get them early, before the antisocial behavior begins,” he urged. “If you get it right at age 6, you can keep the kids away from social exclusion, trouble in school, wrong relationships, and the criminal justice system.“ While many parents worry about the impact of medication, Anderton explains, “Medication often allows for a turning point, to reduce the symptoms so that the young person can cope and achieve social acceptance.”

“Everyone in the system wants to make things right,” said Brown, “but they have to be given the tools.” One important tool set is for teachers, to help them cope with the special teaching challenges of AD/HD. Brown cited a study noting that 39% of AD/HD youth in had been excluded or suspended for behavior problems, with 11% expelled. “These young people face a high risk of exclusion from school, and when they are excluded from school, they are two times more likely to commit crimes.” Where once officers were called on to remove students from school, Brown said, “Today, we have officers going to school to speak on behalf of young people in trouble, to testify against exclusion. In terms of crime prevention, exclusion is a nightmare.”

For those who run afoul of the justice system, Anderton challenged workshop participants to consider practical measures to ensure that communities, schools, and criminal justice systems understand the impact of ADHD and its longer-term implications. In the UK, new models of police training, first piloted in the Lancashire area, are being supplemented by ADHD training throughout the criminal justice system. Following arrest, individuals with AD/HD or other mental-health concerns are being fast-tracked to assessment, while interviews are being simplified and court appearances are being scheduled, often with reminders, so that defendants with AD/HD can attend on time and during periods when they are at their best. Another pilot effort is equipping individuals with special identification cards that can be used by law enforcement to access medical or mental-health histories in the early stages of intervention.

“Learning about ADHD has given us an explanation for some of the behavior we see and a way to engage, through understanding, with the young people affected by it,” said Brown. “But it’s not an excuse for crime, or a reason not to be punished. We’ve got to recognize that AD/HD is a factor in criminal justice, and if we can catch it early, our society, not just our criminal justice system, will benefit.”

For more information about the information presented here, consult The Tipping Points: What professionals should recognize as the social impact of ADHD, by Phil Anderton, PhD, published by ADD Information Services, Ltd. or visit www.addiss.co.uk.