'Just say No' was the battle cry of the last government's war on drugs. The message may have become a little more sophisticated since the days of Back to Basics, but awareness campaigns can only achieve so much. What, for instance, can schools do for a child whose mum has a Pounds 100-a-day heroin habit? Wendy Wallace looks at how families cope with addiction
Drugs education has assumed a growing importance in primary schools, but some children learn about the problems caused by addiction to alcohol, barbiturates and, increasingly, narcotics even earlier - at home. More and more children are being born into drug-using and abusing households, but how good are schools at identifying and helping them?
Dawn has been dependent on alcohol, amphetamines and heroin, in that order, since she was 15. Now 33, she has entered a residential rehabilitation programme, shaken by the prospect of losing her children. But her older daughter, 13-year-old Maddie, has already had a lifetime dominated by her mother's craving for heroin, a need so strong that it obliterated most other considerations most of the time.
When Maddie was at primary school, Dawn needed around Pounds 100-worth of heroin a day. "I financed it through shoplifting, dealing, other little scams," says Dawn. "I had prostitutes working from my premises." She tried to hide the addiction from Maddie. "I kept her separate from my life. I'd feed her, buy her the odd present. She'd be busy watching telly. I think she knew earlier than I thought she knew. I often wondered what it was like for her, keeping such a big secret."
Dawn spent most of her own childhood in care. She adores her daughter. The one thing she salvaged when she went into rehabilitation was a huge framed photograph of Maddie as an angelic toddler, her head on one side, smiling obediently at the camera. But as Dawn's heroin dependence deepened, she was ill-equipped to look after Maddie. Sometimes she had money and bought extravagant presents. On bad days, she begged bread from neighbours and they ate it dry for dinner.
When Dawn didn't have money for drugs, Maddie paid the price. "She used to write me little notes and leave them on the stairs or in my room," says Dawn, "saying 'I'm sorry I've been naughty'. She hadn't, really. But I'd been wanting a hit so I'd been telling her off." Often, she didn't send Maddie to school. "I never got around to getting any clothes washed, or taking her. We never slept at a normal time."
By the time Maddie left primary school, the role reversal was pretty well complete. Maddie looked after Dawn, staying with her after a "dirty fix" when she lay on the couch thinking she was dying after injecting French polish into a vein, walking her younger sister to school, making excuses to the school for her absences and constant lateness. "She'd say 'Oh, mum's got a bad tooth' or something," says Dawn. "She was good as gold, always loyal. I stopped going to school because I was so ashamed of myself. Eventually she stopped asking me to any plays or anything."
Maddie's home life was not a particularly well-kept secret in their Plymouth neighbourhood. After the family moved out, photographs of their squalid living conditions were published across two pages of the local paper. But whatever the school knew or guessed about her background, no help was offered to the child or her mother. Instead, Maddie tried to help Dawn. "She's begged me and begged me not to take it any more," says Dawn. "I think she's seen enough of the bad side."
The case of Dawn and Maddie is not unusual. Schools are more likely to become aware of a drug-dependent parent through the child than from the affected adult. "The received wisdom among addicts would be that you're going to have your children taken away from you, so you mustn't let anybody know," says Madeleine Pym of the London-based drug charity, Mainliners. "Most will be avoiding going along to school to avoid being seen."
But the children of drug users may adopt one of a number of roles as a way of coping, says new advice from the NSPCC. It cites the "perfect child" who - like Maddie - behaves like a parent to other family members, denies there is a problem at home and feels responsible for what happens there. It also identifies the "bad child" - scapegoated and blamed for the parents' problems, the "lost child", who can appear withdrawn and helpless and "the clown", who is manically cheerful, or puts on a babyish front.
Children can retreat into these roles for all sorts of reasons and may dip in and out of several of them. But disturbed behaviour in class, combined with other symptoms of neglect such as inappropriate clothing, persistent hunger or tiredness, could all be the result of drug use at home, says the NSPCC. Its helpful guidelines on how to support children in this situation are included in an ambitious new resource pack which aims to cover all children's needs. Turning Points also offers teachers and other professionals with child protection responsibilities ways of assessing whether drug use is threatening the well-being of children.
The reality is likely to be that children do suffer, says Madeleine Pym. "Children are affected on some level. There is the strain of not being able to take other kids home, of pretending to be like everyone else when probably you're living in poverty and haven't got the right trainers and never will have. There's the strain and exhaustion of constantly scanning the moods of people around you, because these children live with parents whose mood swings are colossal, constantly on a knife-edge between being over-affectionate and angry or violent. And from a nurture point of view, you learn that this is what you do with problems - try to numb yourself as a way out."
Many children are further marginalised and stigmatised by the way parents, particularly mothers, get the money for their drugs. Prostitution often goes hand in hand with addiction, stigmatises the family and burdens the children.
Drug use on the part of a parent isn't on its own a trigger for child protection procedures, says the NSPCC, although it is a cause for concern. Often the drugs are just one element in a cocktail of problems, which may encompass poverty, poor health and mental illness. This volatile mix can in itself make children hard to help; they tend to move from one address to another and be in and out of care or the homes of relatives while Mum does time in prison, hospital or rehabilitation, usually without them.
Teachers in some primary schools regularly see parents who turn up to collect a child and are apparently not in a fit state to take them away. But while teachers may feel reasonably sure of their ground with someone drunk - or at least confident that they recognise the symptoms - a parent high on drugs is likely to be more of an unknown quantity. "They may suspect, but how would they know?" says Pippa Clarke, family services manager at Clouds, a rehabilitation centre in Wiltshire. "Without a drug test, you can't prove it."
Drug agencies make the point that some parents, even if they are dependent on drugs, will manage quite adequately if they have a safe and legal supply - for instance, a methadone prescription as a substitute for heroin. Others may be living on prescribed drugs, such as tranquillisers, and be worse affected. "If mum is on prescription drugs, she can be down, quiet, depressed," says Pippa Clarke. "There physically, but not there. That can go on for years and years and not really come to the surface. On tranquillisers, you become zombified and it can be very distressing for children to just watch Mum or Dad opting out."
A drug-dependent parent is more likely to appear agitated and "out of it" if they have not had their fix than if they have, because they will be suffering withdrawal. "The only sign was when I wasn't on it, when I was ill without it," says Dawn. "Although those days Maddie probably didn't go to school."
What should a teacher do if a parent appears to be too stoned to take charge of a child safely? One inner-city primary school head has had a member of staff take mothers across the main road, to ensure they get home safely. "My main concern is to get them home and make sure there's someone there," she says. "I'm not fazed by it, but if push came to shove I wouldn't let a parent take a child if I didn't think they were fit." The bottom line is to call the social services duty officer and ask them to take the child instead.
Ruth Joyce, head of education and prevention at the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse (SCODA), says that boundaries could be indicated in the school drugs policy; it is helpful if these difficult scenarios have been considered in theory before they are met in practice. "Lack of teacher sureness and information is an issue," she says.
One crucial danger for the children of drug-using parents is that they will copy their parents' behaviour. Roma French is director of Trevi House, a residential rehabilitation centre in Plymouth for women and their children. At Trevi, women and their children up to the age of 12 move in for between six and nine months and learn not only to live without drugs but to play, cook and talk. "The essence of our work is that you restore the family and prevent the next generation falling into drug dependency," says Roma French. "If you don't work with those children, in a couple of years they will be using themselves, because that is what they know."
Roma French, like an increasing number of voices in the drugs field, is calling for more work with families. "Agencies are geared up to work with the identified user," she says. "So Mum or Dad might be linked in. But nobody's working with the whole family and it's a nonsense."
Says Dawn, of her daughter Maddie, "When I look at her now, I can't believe how grown up she's got. I feel like going over and shaking her and saying 'go back to being a baby'. When I look back on it now, I think she must have had a right shit time of it."
Turning Points, produced by the NSPCC, costs Pounds 120 (plus post and package). From Caroline Riley or Suzanne Ferrar at the NSPCC National Training Centre, 3 Gilmour Close, Leicester LE4 1EZ. Drug-Using Parents: policy guidelines for inter-agency working, by the Local Government Drugs Forum and SCODA, price Pounds 15 inc postage from LGMB Publications Sales, Layden House, 76-86 Turnmill Street, London EC1M 5QU. Tel: 0171 296 6600