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A mother on drug crime in Ireland: 'When the dealers called to my door and wanted me to settle his debts, I’d had enough'

Child protection expert Shane Dunphy on the cycle of drugs, violence and intimidation being experienced by vulnerable Irish families.

Shane Dunphy

“I’M NOT SORRY I hit him,” says Jolene*. 

“When the drug dealers he owed money to called to my door and wanted me to settle his debts, I’d had enough.”

Jolene had tried over and over again to persuade her son Barry, 17, to get help for his addiction but she couldn’t get through to him. 

“He started to cry and walked out. I didn’t see him again until it was too late,” she says.

Jolene is a single mother living in a large local authority housing estate. She and Barry’s father separated three months after he was conceived.

“We were young and we were stupid and staying together made no sense,” Jolene says. “I never blamed him. He works in England now.”

Gang Life

Gangs have always been a part of life on the estate where Jolene lives. She can remember being taken aside by a friend of her father’s when she was in her early teens in the mid-1990s.

“He told me that if I got in trouble – the sort where someone needed to be warned off, I could always call on him,” she says. “I suppose, even then, I knew he was a bad guy, but around here he was sort of a hero too.

People respected him – at least, that’s what I thought. Now I know it wasn’t really respect, it was fear.

Barry’s early schooling was blighted by behavioural problems. When he was seven, an educational psychologist diagnosed him with Attention Deficit Disorder, a behavioural condition that makes sustained concentration and following instruction difficult.

“He hated school,” Jolene says. “He was always getting into trouble. There was a couple of special needs assistants in his class, but they still found him difficult to manage. I’d hoped he would be real smart and go to college, but those dreams died fast.”

Jolene acknowledges that she dealt with the pain of those difficult years by self-medicating. “I’ve got the medical card, and it wasn’t hard to persuade my GP to prescribe me tranquilisers.

I used to wash down the pills with vodka from Lidl, and I was off my head pretty much all the time for a couple of years. Barry had to look after himself and that was when the real trouble started.

Barry was 10 years old when his mother began to succumb to alcohol and drug addiction. Vulnerable and left to his own devices, he was approached by members of a local gang who asked him if he wanted to earn some money.

“They would meet him on his way to school several mornings a week. He’d be handed a package to take with him to school,” she says.

“At the break, he would go and stand by the railings, and his job was to pass this bundle to a man who would stop just the other side of the fence, who would give him a parcel in return,” she says. 

Did Jolene have any suspicion what these packages contained? “Drugs and money,” she said without pausing.

“It’s kind of genius, when you think about it. I mean, what garda is going to stop and search a 10-year-old school kid?”

By the time Barry was 13, he was selling cannabis. “Everything he did was for the gang. When he did go to school it was to deal drugs, and all the teachers were afraid of him,” she says.

She knew that Barry had money, and it wasn’t coming from her, but then she found out he was robbing houses and stealing cars.

I heard he beat the hell out of a neighbour’s kid, and when I confronted him about it, he told me that the lad owed him money for dope. Then I found out he was using heroin, and everything went to hell.

Escalating addiction

Barry was still dealing, but as his own usage became more pronounced, his employers started to pay him with product.

Within a matter of months he was dipping in to his own stock, and that was when he stopped being useful to them, because he was injecting more than he was selling. 

Jolene tried to persuade Barry to go into treatment; she put him out of the family home when he stole from her. “We didn’t talk for six weeks, but then when I found out he was sleeping rough, I gave in and let him back home,” she says. 

When Jolene received a visit from two of Barry’s former employers, informing her of the extent of her son’s continued heroin usage, she thought at first they were expressing concern.

It wasn’t until they told me he owed them €3,000, and that if he couldn’t pay, the debt fell to me, that I understood what was going on.

“I hit the roof and told them to get the hell out of my house. They stood up to go, and, calm as you like, told me they’d be back.”

Barry came home later that night. When Jolene tried to express how frightened and angry she was, things degenerated rapidly.

He just laughed at me, suggested that maybe I should pay them. He said he knew I had money hidden away, that between the dole and the odd bit of work minding my neighbour’s kids, I could surely spare it.

“It was like he was saying it was my responsibility. That’s when I lost it.”

After she slapped him, Barry left the house and did not return. Jolene was worried, but was determined to follow a course of tough love this time.

“He texted me about three days later, begging to come home. It broke my heart but I didn’t respond,” she says. 

Extortion

That very same day the attempts to extort money from Jolene began. That night she  received a text message, from an unknown number, with a link to an article from the local paper. It was about a woman who had been beaten and raped and the article said that the woman was linked to gangland crime.

The next night an envelope full of dog droppings was put through her letterbox. The night after that, it was a burning box of fire-lighters, she says.

“Luckily I regularly check the batteries in my smoke detectors, because I’m a heavy sleeper. I got downstairs just in time,” she says. “I went to the gardaí after that.”

The police were extremely sympathetic to Jolene’s situation, and detectives from the organised crime unit spoke to the individuals involved. The harassment stopped, and for a week, Jolene thought her plight was over.

She was wrong. “I was woken up at 5 o’clock on a Sunday morning by my phone ringing. I answered, but all I could hear was what sounded like someone crying. I knew it was Barry.”

The call ended, and seconds later a message came through – a photograph accompanied by the following text: “Late payment fees have been added to your debt. Pay us €8,000 and you’ll get him back.”

The image was of Barry, his face beaten almost beyond recognition.

I thought about calling the gardaí for about thirty seconds… Then I looked at what money I had in the credit union, and worked out how much I could borrow.

The reunion with her son was painful.“I swore to myself I’d never let him go again,” she says. But deep down they both knew Barry needed to make big changes and that meant leaving his home and the life he knew. 

Barry’s father sent them the money for a plane ticket to England. “He didn’t want to go,” says Jolene. “He’d never been further than 20 miles from home – but we both knew it was for the best.”

Barry had promised to Skype her every night and he has been in touch a few times. “He’s doing okay, his dad is looking after him,” she says.

Jolene has applied for a transfer to another local authority house. “I’ve lived here all my life, but it doesn’t feel like home any more,” she says. 

I see them all the time, those people who hurt and intimidated my family, and I get terrified and angry all over again. They’re part of life here and they have been for as long as most of us can remember.
That won’t change any time soon. There isn’t a politician alive who knows how to fix this sickness.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

*All names have been changed to protect anonymity

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