Pubdate: Sun, 08 Mar 2009
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Marina Barnard


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, UKP 19.99
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