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Teen who died 'allowed remain too long' in home where drug use was the norm

Nicholas was just 17 when he died due to misuse of drugs.

Image: File photo via Shutterstock

A REVIEW OF the death of a teenager while in State care found that he was allowed to remain too long in a home where drug misuse was the norm and where his father could not meet his needs.

Nicholas’ story

Nicholas died suddenly at the age of 17, due to respiratory failure brought on by consuming a toxic combination of drugs.

He lived with his father Philip and saw his mother Denise regularly. Nicholas was described as “charming” and “a lovely boy” and was “fondly remembered” by social workers and teachers.

He became a father at 14 and his partner and child lived nearby.

The review, which is published by Tusla, looks at the five years leading up to Nicholas’s death.

The original reasons for contact between Nicholas and the child protection services were neglect due to parental conflict, Denise’s alcohol misuse, and family homelessness.

Drug misuse and violence

His parents separated and supported accommodation was provided to his father, himself and his siblings, but “Nicholas remained at risk on account of poor school attendance, a caring but disorganised home environment, deepening involvement in anti-social behaviour, and drug misuse”.

Several interviewees expressed a strong view that Nicholas should have been taken into care much earlier. One commented that he “should never, ever, ever have been left with either one of the parents”. The family did not share this view

Nicholas was exposed to drug misuse and violence at home and the review said that professionals who worked with him were not surprised that he began to drink and experiment with drugs at an early age.

Nicholas was referred to the Social Work Department (SWD) as his mother was not providing adequate care or supervision. He had a social worker from the age of eight to his death.

When he was older Nicholas told a social worker he had come to trust that he had been locked into a room for long periods during his early childhood without access to food or toilet facilities and that he had been beaten by his mother

The family were still in sheltered accommodation when Nicholas entered his teens. He came to the attention of the gardaí because he was found carrying a knife, which he said was for self-protection.

Having done well in primary school there was a “marked deterioration in his
commitment and performance when he entered the senior cycle”.

His conduct was variable and a report written at the time noted that on occasions he “arrived in school and wept uncontrollably”.

He left school at 13 and attended a special education project for a while. He was described as fragile and vulnerable.

At 14, he became a father. At 15, he was found in possession of a gun and drugs, and gardaí accepted he was storing them for someone else.

The extent to which Philip’s drug use went unchallenged by the staff involved in the case was striking.

At 15, he was placed into care. He was unsuitable for mainstream care but did not meet the criteria for placement in a special care unit.

A high support unit (HSU) was the only remaining option. He entered the HSU and impressed the staff with his determination to change his ways.

Being away from his partner and child was difficult. He was found to be in possession of cannabis at the unit. After five months he failed to return from a visit home and neither he nor his father attended a closure meeting.

Drug use and risks

As he got older, concerns about his drug consumption and at-risk behaviour grew.

He began using legal highs, and was found once disorientated on a dual carriageway. He also appeared in court over crimes such as theft and possession of drugs.

A child protection case conference was called around the time of his 17th birthday.

The conference concluded that another high support placement was required.

The Children’s Resource Panel which considered the application agreed that his needs could not be met within mainstream residential care but was unable to offer any high support facility. The Children’s Resource Panel recommended that an application be made for special care and that, in the interim, staff would seek to work with him on an outreach basis.

One social worker felt she was being “fobbed off” regarding the HSU situation.

It was then decided to concentrate on identifying appropriate community supports so Nicholas could remain at home.

His third social worker said it took six or seven visits before they got to meet him.

Nicholas’s final evening was spent socialising with friends. He fell asleep in their company but could not be woken up the next morning.

What the review team found

The review team concluded that Nicholas was allowed to remain for too long in an environment where drug misuse was the norm, and where his father could not adequately meet his needs.

“The obvious hazards should have been addressed more directly by the SWD,” the review team said.

But because his father was amenable and well-liked, this “did not become as pressing an issue as it should have” and matters “were allowed to drift”.

The review also found that had a decision been made to admit Nicholas to foster care or residential care, or to place him with a relative, this would need to have occurred at a much earlier point than five years before his death.

But it also said:

The services made available to him could not compensate for the neglect he experienced from parents who did not have the capacity to provide adequate care, and his childhood exposure to domestic violence and substance abuse.

No direct link has been found between practice in this case and Nicholas’s death.

Recommendation

The review team recommends a review of the mechanisms by which applications for special care are processed.

The full review can be read on the Tusla website.

Report: ‘Considerable shortcomings’ in protecting vulnerable State care child who died of overdose>

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