'We had to get out. Life in England was destroying us'
Four years after Leah Betts's death, her family have withdrawn to Scotland. Her father explains why grief and anger provoked the move.
Sunday 22 August 1999
Today Paul Betts seems happy. As he settles back into his garden chair, he breathes a sigh of satisfaction. In fact, Betts cuts a figure of total contentment.
His new surroundings are partly the reason. It's two months since he uprooted his family from the Essex home in which Leah died to start a new life more than 500 miles away in the Scottish Highlands. He has bought eight acres of land in the middle of nowhere, from where he continues a remarkable (some would say over-zealous) crusade against drugs that began shortly after his daughter's life support machine was turned off.
"Before I first came to Scotland I thought it was a cold, bleak, miserable land full of tight people," he says. "I know better now. It's a great place with great people. In England we felt we were prejudged. Scots people are totally different. I've become part of a civilised race."
Apart from digs at the English, there is a real sense that for the first time since Leah's death on her 18th birthday almost four years ago, her father is finally moving on. No longer has he to put up with the house in Latchingdon which became a deeply unhappy place. Nor will he be frustrated by what he perceives as the "backward" drugs strategy in England that thwarted his attempts to stop other kids following Leah's tragic example.
The lives of Paul, his wife Janet and their youngest son William changed beyond recognition when Leah died. They went from being average parents who knew next to nothing about drugs to Britain's foremost unofficial experts on illegal substances, particularly ecstasy. Today their lives revolve around the anti-drugs voluntary organisation and confidential helpline which they run.
Their knowledge of drugs is now extensive, and their contentious conclusions - that the long-term effects of cannabis are just as dangerous, if not more so, than heroin, and that tobacco and alcohol are a bigger menace than ecstasy and LSD - form the backbone of their anti-drugs campaigning. "Yes, I know what drug abuse is all about," says Betts, a former smoker, who watched in agony as his father died of cancer 17 years ago. "The only difference is that mine was legal."
Do not, though, expect Betts to tell kids not to use drugs. "Parents find it difficult to accept that there is a pleasurable side to drug taking. They see the dross, the bad side, and think that their kids have got to be off their heads to use drugs."
Leah's death in November 1995 was the culmination of the Betts family's own annus horribilis. A few months earlier Paul had been medically retired from his job as a police inspector after he was called to a wedding where an angry mother was trying to halt her daughter's marriage. She "canned" him with a soft drink tin, the ring pull sliced his eyebrow, curled round the eyeball and severed an artery. He is going blind in his right eye.
On Christmas Day 1994 his mum Sarah died and his Aunt Blanche, who had cared for her when she was ill, passed away shortly afterwards. Their youngest son William almost died there as well. Ten days after having his tonsils removed he haemorrhaged, and lost three pints of blood in three minutes. His life was saved only after a frantic dash to hospital.
After being asked to talk to a local Jewish society about the heartbreak of losing Leah, Paul and Janet went on a massive learning curve and became the virulent anti-drugs campaigners they are today. But the sheer intensity of their crusade soon took its toll. William, a vulnerable 11-year-old when Leah died, was mercilessly bullied at school. Paul, meanwhile, spent most of the week reliving his awful experiences at venues around the country, then returned to the house where it all happened, inhabited by a family threatening to self-destruct.
"We had to get out," he says. "That house holds only memories of grief for me. Every time I got back it reminded me of the terrible things that had happened there. If we had stayed put our family would have been destroyed."
The Betts's aren't backward at coming forward. They tend to tell it like it is and then some. The result has been threats from drug dealers and accusations from others that they were cashing in on their daughter's death. Their approach also drew heavy criticism from official anti-drugs agencies who dismissed the couple as hysterical, grieving parents intent on scaremongering. And all the while the drug problem has been growing.
Betts believes that Scotland outshines the rest of Britain in tackling the problem with its hard-hitting zero tolerance policy. It's a contentious opinion, even in Scotland. "I've never met the Betts's but opinions of them in our field vary from being excellent to reactions that are not very complimentary," says one senior Scottish drugs officer. "I don't agree that Scotland is doing a better job, though. Mr Betts's perception may come from the fact that we are a much smaller country, and it's always easier to appear more co-ordinated when you've not got as much to deal with."
Certainly Scotland's lack of ethnic diversity is a major factor in making the problem appear more contained, and Scotland's willingness to call people in from outside suggests a more open approach - although this could also indicate a lack of self-confidence in the Scottish drugs agencies.
The family now lives off Paul's police pension, and has accepted only travelling expenses and charity donations. So far, they say, their crusade has left them more than pounds 10,000 out of pocket.
Paul's only regret in moving was leaving Leah's grave behind. Yet he feels that she is with him. At one of his first public meetings, when he was feeling down, a butterfly suddenly appeared. It hovered around briefly, then the evening went wonderfully. Similar "sightings" have happened since.
"You can call me a cranky old man," he says but I feel as though Leah is saying she's with me and I should keep up the work. If I've got a problem and a butterfly appears, I know everything will be OK."
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