The Forgotten Children: How Society Can Counter The Problem Of Drug Addicted Parents
HE TOOK half a day to die. Brandon Muir, a fortnight shy of his second birthday, lasted 12 hours after a fatal blow from his mother’s boyfriend. He was to spend his final hours standing, punished, against a wall; then propped up against a toilet as adults partied; and, finally, lying cold and alone under a coat on a settee.
All this as his prostitute mother turned tricks to feed her smack habit and her partner of 18 days drank, smoked hash and had sex with an ex.
The toddler’s injuries, doctors later said, were so bad they were more typical of a car crash than a domestic assault. Brandon’s intestine had been split after it was driven, by massive blunt force, into the bones of his spine. He died, in agony and after vomiting brown liquid, of what doctors call acute chemical peritonitis. In laymen’s terms he was poisoned, by his own gastric juices leaking into his abdomen from his burst gut.
A five-week trial ended last week. It didn’t settle exactly how Brandon, a slight blue-eyed blond who was said to reach for hugs from almost anyone, came to be hurt. But it did decide who was responsible: Robert Cunningham, the new boyfriend of the child’s mother, Heather Boyd.
Brandon’s killer now faces years in jail – he will be sentenced at the end of this month – after being found guilty of culpable homicide at the High Court in Glasgow. Brandon’s mother was cleared of culpable homicide on the judge’s direction earlier in the trial. Boyd, branded “the most hated woman in Scotland” by one tabloid, defended her parenting. “I was a good mum,” she said. “I still am. I was a normal mum except when I was taking the drugs.”
Her son’s death was just the latest in a roll call of tiny lives lost at the hands of addict parents or their associates. The killing of the two-year-old, hauntingly similar in appearance to the similarly aged Baby P in London, has sparked independent reviews of child protection services in Dundee.
Brandon, after all, was in the system, firmly on the radar of social workers. A case conference was scheduled for two days after his death. It is understood he was likely to be taken into care amid concerns about Cunningham, who had “previous” for hurting children and who had joined Boyd’s chaotic household just 18 days before the boy died. Privately social work experts, none of whom wants to pre-empt any inquiry with public statements, reckon their colleagues in Tayside moved pretty quick. Not, of course, as fate had it, quick enough.
Alex Salmond, the First Minister, made clear his views last week: “The guilt lies with the person who perpetrated the crime,” he told the Scottish Parliament. “It doesn’t lie with the social work department or the police.”
As politicians demanded that “this should never happen again”, as scapegoats were sought and as hand-wringing commentators debated the ethics of allowing junkie mums to keep their babies, frontline child protection staff were last week bracing themselves for the next Brandon. Who will he or she be? “Take your pick,” said one social worker. “There are thousands of Brandons to choose from.”
Scotland has about 50,000 drug addicts. They, in turn, have about 50,000 children, at least according to research from Glasgow University. Scotland’s children’s minister, Adam Ingram, last week quietly conceded that nobody knows the actual figure for sure.
His “best estimate”, he told the BBC, was that some 20,000 youngsters live in households with substance-abusing parents. Crudely, that is almost one in every classroom in the country. Few have social workers. Scotland’s at-risk register, the official list of the nation’s most vulnerable youngsters, runs to fewer than 3,000 names. Most children in drug homes, then, unlike Brandon or even Baby P, don’t get any kind of intense scrutiny from the authorities.
So who is standing up for Scotland’s forgotten children, the biggest victims of the nation’s astonishing generation-long heroin epidemic? And is there any way to reach parents for whom drugs come before kids?
THE lentil soup is simmering on the stove. The staff at Family Resource Centre, in Ruchazie, Glasgow, always have some vegetable broth on the go. The big pot is partly a way of showing some of the centre’s clients how easy it is to make cheap and healthy food. It is also partly a way of making sure some of the mums, dads and children who drop into the centre get a hot meal.
Mary Glasgow, the social worker who set up the children’s charity Quarriers, is watching some mums with pushchairs tuck into soup and sandwiches, their children happily playing at their feet.
“I look at the kids in here,” she said, thinking of little Brandon and Boyd. “It is about luck. It is just your luck where you are born. Luck and opportunity. I feel personally distraught about that baby. See that young woman, if you could have got her to come here we would have been able to make a difference. We can’t know for sure, of course. But I think we could have. It is all about raising her confidence to challenge somebody that is violent and abusive. So she can say: ‘I deserve more than this. My baby deserves better than you.'”
The Quarriers centre, initially nothing more than a flat in one of Glasgow’s bleaker schemes, now a state-of-the-art £1.2m facility, is regarded as a centre for excellence in dealing with struggling parents, with or without drug or alcohol problems. Glasgow – the social worker, not the city – has seen her fair share of little Brandons. She has also seen a lot of them, thanks to the support on offer, grow up into healthy teenagers.
Thanks, she reckons, to the tough love their parents get at the centre. “We have got to support these parents,” she said. “But we have got to challenge them too. We have got to explain to them that there are things that are not acceptable.”
Glasgow tells of a 19-year-old who turned up at the centre one evening. “She was seven months pregnant and out of her face. She was just saying, ‘Can you help me’. We had a child protection conference before her baby was born and we said we would offer her support here. But she smoked heroin in the maternity ward and her baby was taken into care immediately.
“The young woman had been in care herself and had been a victim of abuse. She didn’t want her baby to go through the same thing. So we arranged for her to spend time, days with her baby, at the centre. Eventually she got the baby back and we gave her some pretty intense support for a year and a half.
“Folk might think that is ridiculous, that it must have cost a fortune. But I think we have saved a fortune. That young women is now off drugs, she is working and not getting benefits and her baby is not in care. All in return for a year and a half’s work. You can make a difference to these folk.”
The Quarriers centre, however, is having to turn people away, telling them it can’t help, its services hopelessly oversubscribed. A sister unit in Barlanark is equally busy, as is an embryonic centre in Drumchapel. Such parents and children’s centres – where the interests of children come long before those of their parents – are being rolled out in England. Glasgow, now Quarriers service manager, would like to see one in “every corner” of the city that shares her name. “The Government has just got to get to grips with the scale of the problem it is facing,” she said.
Policy-makers are optimistic. The new SNP administration, for the first time, officially put the needs of addicts’ children right at the heart of its new strategy on drugs, one that stresses recovery rather than the old focus on managing addicts, usually with heroin substitute methadone. Cynics who work with drug abusers aren’t so sure. “There is a lot of consensus about how you deal with parents who abuse substances. We do have some good ways of fixing people” said one. “But the resources are just not there.”
One recovered addict mum, moreover, stressed that getting better was more painful than staying on drugs. “They always say the good thing about recovery is that you get your feelings back,” the 33-year-old from Edinburgh said. “They also say that the bad thing about recovery is getting your feelings back.”
Mums and dads with addiction problems love their children like anyone, she explained. But drugs do strange things to your brain. They hit the same part of your head as basic needs like breathing or eating. Or caring for your children. As Boyd said: “I am a good mum. Except when I am on drugs.”
Some addicts, professionals stressed, do somehow manage to muddle through parenthood. Perhaps, said one social worker, they really don’t all need their own case workers, such is the workload social work departments are facing.
“We do risk assessments,” he said. “We try and get to the worst of them, the ones who turn up at Primary One not knowing what an apple is or never having brushed their teeth.”
Could Scotland take all the children of addicts into care? Could it ensure all of them have their own social workers? No and no, say the frontline workers. Even if the Government somehow came up with the money needed, they would never find enough of the right kind of people to look after all those children.
Social workers were this weekend licking their wounds after another week of bad headlines about children slipping through their net. Veteran John Stevenson, who has worked for Edinburgh’s social work department for nearly 30 years, remembers the days before heroin hit Scotland in the early 1980s. There were more social workers then than now, he reckons. And social workers still have to deal with all the troubled families that don’t have abuse issues.
“There are around 6,000 children in contact with family members who are addicted to drugs in the Lothians,” Stevenson says. “Here in Edinburgh we have 143 social workers in Children and Families. I want to give all the politicians a free calculator and ask them to divide the first figure into the second. It’s a bit of a mismatch. “I don’t think people realise the scale of the problem.”
CALEB NESS Murdered aged just two months, in October 2001, by his brain-damaged father Alexander Ness, who had convictions for violence and drug dealing. His case sparked a major overhaul of social work services in Edinburgh.
DANIELLE REID, five, of Inverness, was killed in 2002 by her addict mother’s drug-abusing boyfriend, Lee Gaytor, and dumped in the Caledonian Canal. She wasn’t reported missing for months because her school was told she had moved to Manchester.
KENNEDY MCFARLANE, three, from Dumfries and Galloway, died in May, 2000, after she was hit by her mother’s boyfriend. She had previously come to the attention of authorities after ingesting drugs.
SCOTT SAUNDERS, of Rutherglen, died of horrific neglect at the hands of his heroin- addicted carers, mother Cheryl Hanson, 23, and her boyfriend, Mark Connelly, 29. The 33-month-old toddler was described as a living skeleton with 150 injuries.
DEREK DORAN from East Lothian was found dead in bed in 2005. The toddler had swallowed methadone, thinking it was a soft drink. Both his parents were addicts and used the heroin substitute but Derek was not on the at-risk register.