Help Us Help Them – The Factors that Most Directly Impact Professionals’ Ability to Support Justice-Involved Youth with Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Help Us Help Them – The Factors that Most Directly Impact Professionals’ Ability to Support Justice-Involved Youth with Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Young people with neurodevelopmental disorders are overrepresented in the youth justice system and face many disadvantages due to their impairments. The current study investigated what factors predict and contribute to the behavior of youth justice professionals working in the Queensland (QLD) youth justice system, utilizing a behavior change wheel framework.

Article Title: Understanding Current Staff Experiences, Practices and Needs in Young People with Neurodevelopmental Disorders in the Queensland Youth Justice System | 2022, Vol. 21, No. 4, 372-382


Alanna Heanue; School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

Matthew J. Gullo; National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research, University of Queensland, Queensland, Brisbane, Austrialia

Nicole Hayes; Child Health Research Centre, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland Australia

Hayley Passmore; Telethon Kids Institute, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Natasha Reid; Child Health Research Centre, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


Young people with neurodevelopmental disorders are overrepresented in the youth justice system and face many disadvantages due to their impairments. The current study investigated what factors predict and contribute to the behavior of youth justice professionals working in the Queensland (QLD) youth justice system, utilizing a behavior change wheel framework. Eighty-one youth justice professionals participated in an online survey assessing capability, opportunity and motivation and additional open-ended questions capturing their recommendations for improvement. Results demonstrated that training frequency, capability, opportunity and motivation significantly predicted behaviors to identify and support young people with neurodevelopmental disorders (i.e., target behaviors). Capability (p = <.001) and motivation (p = .02) were significant independent predictors of the target behaviors. Examination of open-ended responses provided by the youth justice professionals identified several key areas, consistent with existing literature, which were in need of modifications to further support young people with neurodevelopmental disorders. These included: use of language, availability of resources, increased liaison with stakeholders, and knowledge and understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders. Overall, the current results provide helpful directions in terms of future targets for implementation strategies and interventions to better support young people with neurodevelopmental conditions who are involved with the QLD youth justice system.


Neurodevelopmental disorders; fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; youth justice; youth justice professionals

Summary of the Research

“Neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) are physical, mental, or sensory deficits that occur due to disruption of the development of the central nervous system, and typically onset during childhood…NDDs are complex and lifelong. There is an overrepresentation of individuals with NDDs in correctional services globally…The impairments young people experience due to their NDD can impact every stage of contact with the justice system, including police contact, sentence length, courtroom engagement and presentation, behavior in custody, and adhering to conditions of community-based orders…There is limited research that has investigated current knowledge and practices in the Australian state of Queensland (QLD). This is an important research gap, as Australian youth justice policies and services vary across each state and territory…There is also limited research on initiatives to support individuals with NDDs in the justice system…To better support individuals with NDDs in the youth justice system, new practices and processes based on evidence are needed…” (p. 372-374).


“The aim of the current study was to better understand the current service needs, practices, processes, and knowledge within the QLD youth justice system to identify barriers and facilitators to implementation of evidence-based screening, assessment, and intervention approaches for young people with NDDs. Specifically, this included: (1) current levels of capability, opportunity, motivation, and behavior regarding providing supports for young people with NDDs involved with the QLD youth justice system; (2) specific training needs of youth justice professionals; (3) specific information regarding FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder] …and (4) qualitative recommendations from the perspective of youth justice professionals. Based on the BCW [behavior change wheel] theoretical model, it was hypothesized that capability, opportunity, [and] motivation would be uniquely associated with youth justice professionals’ behavior, after controlling for key demographic variables…Eighty-one QLD youth justice professionals participated in the current study…” (p. 374).


“…The COM [COM-B framework; Mitchie et al., 2011] variables were found to be significant predictors of behaviors…as expected based on previous literature…Hierarchical regression results demonstrated that the combined predictors (training frequency and COM variables) were significant, whereby almost half of the variance was explained by Capability. The findings provide partial support for the hypothesis that the COM variables would be uniquely associated with behavior. Descriptive statistics of the COM variables revealed that youth justice professionals on average, scored higher for motivation, closely followed by capability; however, opportunity had the lowest score. These findings suggest that while staff are motivated to support young people, there may be less opportunities available…Training frequency was significantly associated with behavior. These findings suggest that in the current sample, engagement in tailored practices and processes to support individuals with NDDs was not contingent on one’s experience, department, or current role. However, the investment in regular professional development was related to behavior” (p. 377).


“…Those with higher levels of capability and motivation, were significantly more likely to engage in behaviors that supported young people with NDDs. Interestingly, opportunity was not found to be significant, suggesting that youth justice professionals may utilize their high level of motivation, to support young persons with NDDs, which may compensate for lower levels of opportunity…opportunity is likely to still be an important factor to address, as a mismatch between staff motivation and opportunity could be one potential contributing factor to staff ‘burn-out,’ which may influence staff retention…Regarding training needs for justice professionals, results demonstrated most participants did not feel they had received adequate training to equip them with the skills to support and manage difficult behaviors associated with NDDs. Additionally, most participants indicated interest in receiving more specific training related to NDDs…Face-to-face workshops were identified as the most popular mode of training, followed by mentor support and online training…Findings from FASD specific questions were mixed regarding current levels of QLD justice professional knowledge and understanding. In particular, there was lack of awareness regarding the common behaviors associated with FASD, and the lifelong nature of the disorder…” (p. 378).

Translating Research into Practice

“Qualitative findings of the current study identified several areas where staff recommended modifications…Previous research has highlighted the importance of practical management strategies that are tailored to the individual, in order to produce effective outcomes, which in turn reduces reoffending…Youth Justice professionals also expressed the need for increased preventative interventions and restorative justice processes…restorative justice processes need to be provided in appropriate ways to meet the needs of young people with NDDs. For example, providing access to appropriate assessment services that can enable a comprehensive understanding of a young person’s unique profile of neurodevelopmental strengths and challenges and subsequently, providing services and community-based orders that take NDD impairments into consideration, enabling effective service provision and compliance with orders. Language modifications was another key area identified…it has [been] previously recommended that young people with NDDs are able to access communication assistants, so they are able to understand the court processes and effectively engage in the justice process…” (p. 379).


“Lack of resources in remote/regional areas was also a key area, and youth justice professionals noted this as a contributing factor as to why many young people with NDDs go undiagnosed for extended periods of time…there is an imperative need for a multi-sectoral response, which includes health, justice, education and child protection to increase provision of appropriate assessment, diagnosis and culturally informed community-based supports…Lastly, liaison with other stakeholders was identified as an important area for modification…Whilst there remain ongoing challenges in the NZ youth justice system, practices and processes in that setting include a focus on collaboration between justice, health, and education professionals to more effectively and holistically support young people…Development of partnerships among health and justice professionals is imperative to enable neurodevelopmental assessments, consistent responses, and tailored interventions to produce effective outcomes…This also includes liaising with families, to actively engage them in the intervention process…” (p. 380).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

 “…Many young people involved with youth justice and child protection systems are not being recognized as having NDDs…Individuals may meet the diagnostic criteria for a NDD but have been unidentified or misdiagnosed. Therefore, there are lost opportunities to develop a comprehensive understanding of how the individual’s immediate and future needs may differ to those with NDDs…Failure to identify, and share this information leads to inadequate service responses to the needs of young people and in turn, increases the risk of adverse consequences…A previous Australian study by Mutch et al., (2016) administered an online survey among 427 justice professionals in Western Australia (WA)…although approximately two-thirds of the judicial officers had previously suspected FASD among their clients, only 27% reported they would request an assessment, purely due to a lack of pathways or mechanisms for referral. Finally, 92% of lawyers and police officers reported that individuals with FASD would benefit from alternative or diversionary practices…” (p. 372-373).

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Additional Resources

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and Suggestibility

Introduction to Developmentally Appropriate Interviewing using the Revised NICHD Protocol