Brandon Muir’s tragic death will not be the last of its kind
We can put a name to the grainy face of the toddler in the news last week because of the way he died. But in Scotland today there are tens of thousands of children like Brandon Muir living chaotic, violent and perilous lives because of their parents’ drug and alcohol addiction.
Brandon was killed by Robert Cunningham, the boyfriend who had moved in with mother Heather Boyd just 18 days before the boy’s death. The couple were heroin addicts. Glasgow high court heard Cunningham hit the two-year-old so hard in the abdomen, his intestine ruptured. But the child did not die until the next morning, and in that time Boyd took him to a party where he was left in a toilet, ignored by the drunk and drug-using adults.
The postmortem found Brandon had 40 separate injuries, including four broken ribs. In an interview last week, Boyd insisted she was a good mother and blamed social workers for not warning her of Cunningham’s violent past.
The estimate that 50,000 children in Scotland under the age of 16 have one or both parents with drug problems expresses the scale of the problem. Brandon Muir is not the first fatality. Caleb Ness, Derek Doran and Danielle Reid all died because of the drug problems of their parents and their parents’ partners.
Fortunately, child deaths are rare. It is the nature of the beast, however, that there will be many lucky escapes: kids who, in surviving, elude the statistics and keep us ignorant of the long-term damage that parental drug addiction causes to those who have to grow up despite their parents’ lack of care.
I have spoken to many of these families in the course of my work. In interviewing parents and children living with addiction, Joy Barlow and I heard too many tales of terrible danger narrowly avoided: the two-year-old who ate her parents’ heroin; the toddler left alone to play who nearly burnt himself to death while his mother went in search of drugs. None of these incidents resulted in social work intervention, and few of the incidents parents described again and again had ever been known about by any agency. Yet they happen with scary frequency.
Ask any problem drug user and they will tell you how drugs become the only thing of any real importance in their lives. Their attention becomes riveted on getting and using drugs at the cost of their family relationships, their health, their looks and, too often, the safety and well-being of their children. One, now drug-free, woman said: “You only care about yourself. If you’ve got anything left, they get it, but you would take it off them to give it to you.”
Households where drugs are the main priority are necessarily chaotic, structured not around the child’s need for routines of meals, school or bedtimes but around the funding, buying and using of drugs, usually more than once a day.
“I used to take my kids with me to score and we’d stand in the rain for three hours waiting on somebody coming back with drugs,” said one mother. “It didn’t matter that it was 11 o’clock at night and they were soaking and they were hungry and they were tired.” Children dragged along in the wake of their parent’s habit learn not to expect very much at all: food, shelter and clothing are uncertain, and so is their safety.
For years the mantra that “parental drug addiction doesn’t necessarily mean an inability to parent” had some currency among practitioners working with the adults in such families. But, year after year, the Scottish children’s reporter charts the upward trajectory of child protection registrations for neglect under the category of lack of parental care, mostly associated with substance misuse. The exposure of children to risk as a consequence of their parents’ drug use is not rare or intermittent; it may be happening on a daily basis.
Brandon was not on the child protection register. Dundee social services seem to have known about him, and neighbours had alerted them, as had Brandon’s grandmother, to try to get him removed as they felt he was not safe. Rather than get into the possible failings of social work to protect a vulnerable toddler, let us consider the wider point of whether children can ever be safe where their main parent carer has a serious drug problem.
If risk is indeed an integral part of living with parental addiction, and if we do indeed have some 50,000 children with parents with drug problems, how likely is it that any agency or even collection of agencies could aspire even to watchfulness of this level of need and risk? The numbers are simply too great, and where drugs are concerned situations can worsen significantly in no time at all.
Brandon’s mother was in a relationship with Cunningham for only a few weeks; in that time he inflicted many injuries on Brandon, most of which went unremarked, even by health professionals, because he seemed otherwise cheery and well (the same sort of “assessment” was made by the paediatrician in the Baby P case).
If social work had emergent concerns about safety, the cogs turned too slowly to save Brandon. And this really is the problem. Social work is geared up to respond to “incidents”: cases where the danger is truly recognisable — the toddler wandering the streets alone at night, the child in hospital with the severe burn.
Brandon slipped under the radar. Perhaps this was because his circumstances looked unremarkable given caseloads stuffed with other families in similar situations. Across Scotland, there will be thousands of such cases, most of which will also slip under the radar. There will be another child death and another round of hand-wringing and heartfelt promises that lessons will be learned.
To help these children, we have to be clear that child welfare is incompatible with parental drug use. Parents have a choice to make between their habit and the retention of their children. Society has an obligation to offer support to such parents, but this should be clearly time limited and backed by legal sanctions.
The Clinton administration in the USA passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act in an attempt to end the damage caused to children who seesaw in and out of institutional care. The unambiguous message it gives parents and the services they engage with is that change needs to happen, otherwise children will not be returned to the family home. Our government should be looking at means to bring home the message to parents that drugs and child welfare are just too dangerous a mix.
We have to make the choice for children not to have to grow up in families like Brandon’s.
Professor Marina Barnard is based at Glasgow University’s centre for drug misuse research and is the author of Drug Addiction and Families, published by Jessica Kingsley, £19.99
From the Sunday Times, Written by Marina Barnard, March 8th 2009
Original Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article5863852.ece
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