War on drugs becomes family affair

Parents on a Bristol estate have linked with others across Britain in an attempt to protect their children and help addicts. Michael Prestage reports
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The Independent Online
STEVE has been in and out of council care all his life and seldom goes to school, but his fellow heroin users on the Knowle West Estate provide a rough form of control on his behaviour. The 10-year-old has been hit for injecting himself with a dirty needle. Other addicts have used the tiny youngster for crawling through small gaps to help carry out robberies.

Knowle West is an area of Bristol where it is as easy to obtain drugs as food. "I can get them within 30 seconds of here," said Steve's friend John, standing in the largely boarded-up shopping centre that is the heart of the estate. He started taking speed (amphetamine) while still at school and now, aged 19, has a pounds 160-a-day heroin habit funded by petty crime.

Young addicts like Steve and John (not their real names) were the inspiration for mothers who, frightened for their children, have formed Knowle West Against Drugs. Their first public meeting attracted 300 people, alarmed at the ease with which drugs could be had and the high crime rate linked to hard drugs.

Being against drugs is the easy part; confronting the problem day after day is far tougher. The group has identified 36 drug dealers on the estate whose names have been passed to police. One of its founders, Mary Smith, wrote to the judge when her 21-year-old heroin- addict son, Christian, appeared in court last month, pleading for a long custodial sentence. He was jailed for a year. "If they had let him out he would have been dead," she said. "I know there are drugs available in prison, but it is still his only hope."

Knowle West Against Drugs is one of a string of action groups being set up by parents across Britain who want to tackle the growing drug problem among the young and offer advice and education to the families of addicts.

The groups are being established in locations as diverse as Liverpool and inner-city Manchester on one hand, Stratford-upon-Avon and Burnham- on-Sea, Somerset, on the other. One group was formed in Tonyrefail, Mid Glamorgan, after the deaths of two addicts within two days of each other, while in Edinburgh a parents group has been set up to help deal with the further problem of Aids among drug users.

In October, 50 delegates from parents-against-drugs projects will meet in Liverpool to discuss how to counter the problem of drugs and young people.

The parents groups have won the support of experienced drugs project workers, such as those working for Lifeline, a Manchester-based organisation.

Paul Watson, a Lifeline counsellor who has worked closely with parents in the Gorton area of the city, believes such parents' initiatives are essential. "It lets parents of addicts know they are not alone and are not to blame, which is vital," he said.

And although drug-free discos might not deter young people from experimenting with drugs, anything that improves community spirit helps, he believes. "It also gives parents a feeling that they are doing something positive," he said, reflecting the frustration felt by those living on drug-ridden estates.

The network has the backing of the Home Office, which funds 1,500 drug- prevention initiatives nationwide that frequently work with parents' groups. "We want to encourage people to work with our projects and to help communities to take action. We can't quantify what effect these groups make but their work can only help," a spokesman said.

Until the founding of the Knowle West group, many of those living on the estate felt no sense of community. Too often people had their houses ransacked to pay for drugs, or became used to the arrival of police at the door.

But the formation of the group has transformed relations between residents and the police on the estate. Beat officers are backing many of the group's initiatives, including a recent poster campaign and the opening of a shop as a drop-in centre. Parents are also working closely with local schools and drugs organisations to improve education for both parents and children, and such events as a recent pop concert have been organised to help promote community spirit.

Mary Smith's experiences highlighted for her how important it is to have help from people with similar problems and experiences. She says she was devastated when she discovered her son Christian was a heroin addict. "There was nobody to turn to and I didn't know what to do. I found other parents of addicts had similar experiences, and it seemed the experts didn't realise the drug problem was so bad here."

In his last court appearance Christian asked for 130 offences to be taken into consideration.

Mrs Smith said the group's members were prepared "to fight some serious battles with the dealers". So far they have suffered no violence, and the parents now have a greater understanding of the drug-sellers. "Many are dealing to fund their own habit." .

The mothers have come to know many of the drug-users and where they meet. Needles are often found behind the shops. An old shed was recently demolished after complaints that it was a base for drug use. During the heatwave, the roof of a disused school is the favoured meeting spot.

The Knowle West group hopes that when a former shop it has been given is refurbished it will rival such attractions. As well as a drop-in centre there will be a clean-needles scheme, drug counsellors and medical staff, and a rehabilitation programme will be run from there.

Clare, 29, has been "clean" since coming out of rehabilitation 15 months ago. She attended after being told the alternative was prison and her three children being taken into care. She welcomes the work of the Knowle West group, but is doubtful about its chances of success.

"Living in Knowle West, everybody you know is using drugs," she said. She funded her amphetamine habit by petty crime and drug dealing. "The only chance is to get away from the estate and start a new life. I don't think I would have come off if I had stayed there."

"We know things won't be easy and we're not expecting miracles," Mrs Smith said. "For many of the children already using drugs, it is too late. Others will not be persuaded by us and will start to use them. But we have to try to do something, and it is only in time that we will know if we have been successful."