Helping our children 'just say no'
WHEN YOU HEAR THAT a child as young as seven has been counselled for drug abuse by a specialist London youth team, then the inevitable question is posed: "where are the parents?"
Increasingly the answer must be that the parents are absent, either in reality or emotionally. Or in some cases cannabis or other "soft" drugs have been supplied by a family member.
This Home Office research drawn from the British Crime Survey comes as the Government is TO back Britain's first national parents' conference on drug prevention, bringing together representatives from parent/teacher associations who believe action cannot come too soon.
Concerned parents also say the horrors of drug abuse and rising crime among the young is yet another blow to family life. Their fears are supported by the government's advisory council op drug abuse who concluded: "No school or parent can afford to be complacent".
June Atkinson and her husband Brian believed that their Catholic family of three children were secure from the perils of drugs.
They went to Mass every Sunday, the boys attended a Bedfordshire Catholic secondary school, their daughter the local convent.
Says June: "Looking back I should have noticed the signs, I should have noticed there was something more to my daughter's rather grumpy behaviour or sudden flashes of good humour.
"But she was 15, fighting for independence, wanting to stay out late, challenging me on every front, especially over clothes. I thought it was just teenage rebellion.
"Then one day I found bits of rolled up foil in her bedroom. Again I thought nothing of it, at that time I knew nothing about drug taking, nothing about how it is used. And the rather musty smell in her bedroom was explained away as burning joss sticks. I believed my daughter."
It was one of June's sons
who told his mother the truth. Their sister had been taking cannabis for a couple of years and would swop a variety of pills among her girl friends.
The effect on June and Brian was devastating; after all, wasn't this the sort of thing that only happened in inner cities?
No, says the Anglican Bishop of Lincoln, the RI Rev Robert Hardy commenting on an investigation by The Times that confirms that country cousins experiment with drugs too.
He says: "A lot of people have got the slightly idealised picture of rural life, but Lincolnshire is quite a hard, deprived and isolated place. That makes it vulnerable to this problem and drug abuse is certainly an area of concern."
In the market towns and Cathedral cities of England, an underground network has evolved with most substances on sale.
Rosalind Turner, who worked on a study among school children with the East Sussex Drugs Advisory Council, found that children were arranging deliveries of drugs to their villages from telephone boots "almost like dialling a pizza".
There was a happy ending for the Atkinson family but it took 10 years before it happened. During those 10 years their daughter became more detached from her family, experimented with LSD, lived in a squat and left school at the earliest possible opportunity.
Today she looks like any other casually dressed young women, she is following an evening class degree programme at London's Birkbeck College, catching up for the educationally lost years.
But around June and Brian there remains the sadness for this shadow decade. "I prayed and prayed that this nightmare would end," recalls June. "It affected our life together when our daughter left home for a squat, it certainly placed a great strain on our Inarriage, but what else could we have done? Stupidly I only confided a half truth to our parish priest, again with hindsight I could have been open and probably discovered we were not the only parents with this problem. But I felt ashamed."
Her despair resounds in sitting rooms across the country as children dip in the pick and mix world of drugs.
For to finance the habit invariably means resorting to Crime : In the Cotswolds police believe that the availability of drugs has contributed to the 17 per cent increase in rural crime in the county last year.
David Utting a research fellow at the Family Police Studies Group Centre believes it would be ridiculous to lay all the blame for rising crime at the feet of parents.
He was commenting on a report," Crime and the Family", produced by his Centre and Crime Concern which calls for young adults to be taught how to be parents.
He said "There is reason to believe that raising children has become a more difficult task which today's patents carry out in greater isolation from support that was once available from the extended family."
Whether we are talking about children living with two parents, one parent or in stepfamilies, it is clear that affectionate parenting and consistent discipline helps protect against acquiring a criminal record.
Parental guidelines help the Catholic family to stay together says Fr Antony Conlon, rector of St Tosenh's. City of London. His parish, which embraces local authority housing and penthouse
apartments in the Barbican, has a high number of "irregular" family set-ups.
There is no Church primary school, which means children travel out of the parish and inevitably prefer to go to the school church. Along with this concern is his worry that for the first time in his priestly experiences he sees "lapsed grannies".
"These ladies in their 50s, 60s, even 70s are friendly but they seem to have lost their Sense of regular church-going, and treat it as a joke if I say I have not seem them in church lately.
"If the grandparents indicate there is no need to attend Mass or to be part of the Church then how on earth are their grandchildren going to follow their faith?"
Fr Conlon tries to bring the faith to these known but absent parish families by stopping for a chat whether it be in the supermarket, corner shop, or nearby market.
It is his regret that he has no chaplaincy with a primary school; "If we don't plant the seeds of faith in the school, then where else can you do 'it?" He is setting up a mother and toddler group, hoping TO reach out to families this way and to support the high number of lone mothers in the area.
"There is so much goodwill in the parish it is a question of getting people back into regular worship."
But as a one man band it is a struggle, one familiar to other single parish priests.
It is also something they have in common with separating and divorced Catholics, who find the reins of parental authority so hard to hold.