A methadone user drinking their methadone (Photo via)
There are a few Victorian practices that really should have been left in the 19th century. We’ve managed to abandon whalebone corsets and sending prepubescent children into coal mines, but there are some things still clinging on: finishing schools, cholera and, most worryingly, doping babies with opiates.
In March of this year, a two-year-old girl died of organ failure after drinking the heroin substitute methadone from a baby mug at her family home in Blackpool. Although it wasn’t established definitively whether the drug killed her, officers continue to investigate the possibility.
Suspected of giving her the liquid opiate to help her sleep, parents Barry, 41, and Michelle, 29, were charged with causing or allowing the death of a child. The story quickly became national news, the couple were remanded in custody for their own safety and there were soon the inevitable calls to ban methadone, one of the most successful, widely available treatments for heroin addiction in the UK.
Over the last decade, 17 children under the age of seven have died from ingesting methadone, with nine more near-fatal poisonings reported. In most of these cases, it has either been proven or heavily suspected that parents had been using methadone, Victorian style, to pacify their children.
At the House of Commons last month, drug charity Adfam presented a report into the issue of methadone-related infant deaths, noting they were happening with a “depressing regularity”. In 2009, during an investigation into the death of a 14-month-old baby girl in Gloucestershire, toxicology tests revealed that her mother and partner had been regularly giving the baby methadone to calm her down. Jailed for child cruelty, the mother later revealed that the practice of giving methadone to small children was “not uncommon” among people she knew.
I recently spoke to Sue Bandcroft, who retired last month after 25 years of managing drug services in Bristol – a city with a high number of people on methadone scripts who are also parents to young children. In 2011, a 23-month-old baby girl died after regularly ingesting methadone given to her by her drug-addicted parents. Worried by the death, Bristol drug workers decided to broach the topic with local parents who use methadone to treat their heroin addiction.
“The immediate reaction was that nobody dopes their babies,” says Bandcroft. “They told us, ‘It’s all media fantasy.’ But once they felt they were allowed to talk about it openly and honestly – and not be judged – most of them admitted it did go on; they all ‘knew someone’ who did it. During these outreach interviews, from what we could gather, it seems that the deaths reported in the papers are just the tip of the iceberg of the practice of using methadone to pacify children.”
There is no data available on the number of babies and young children brought into hospitals suffering from methadone ingestion, because hospitals don’t record it and babies deemed at risk of abuse are rarely drug tested by social services. However, in countries that have looked into the issue, researchers have uncovered some worrying statistics. In Germany, drug tests were carried out on 134 babies and young children of parents receiving methadone treatment. The study found that more than a quarter of the infants had methadone in their system at levels indicating a history of doping. Babies were far more likely to have higher concentrations of methadone in their bodies than older children.
It’s easy to brand these parents as evil, but that’s also a very simplistic way of looking at things; in only a few of the UK's 17 deaths was there evidence that the parents had a total lack of care for their child. So why do parents who love their children wind up dosing them with methadone?
In some ways, the answer is much the same as it would have been in Victorian times: opiates are a simple way of managing a difficult parenting situation. Pacifying babies with high street opiate syrups like Godfrey’s Cordial and Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was briefly the norm in the Victorian era, until they triggered a steep rise in the number of infant deaths and the products were eventually banned.
Nowadays, sweetened liquid opiates aren’t available in your corner shop. Instead, in the form of methadone, they’re prescribed to people to treat heroin addiction. In the UK, there are around 120,000 children living with a parent who’s receiving methadone treatment. And while most of them won’t exactly be living the 19th century peasant life, it’s fair to say that plenty of recovering heroin addicts won’t necessarily be in the most stable financial situation, leading to a certain amount of stress, which is only going to be exacerbated by a screaming child.
As Bandcroft points out: “In the same way that some parents may decide to give their screaming baby an extra dose of Calpol if they’re at the end of their tether, using methadone to pacify may be a last resort for people who are addicted to drugs. Sometimes it occurs because of a relationship – a parent wanting to keep their baby quiet for fear of losing their partner, or because their partner becomes abusive. Sometimes it’s done without the knowledge of a partner."
Bandcroft says parents on scripts live in constant fear of having their children taken away, suggesting that some might pacify their kids to give off the impression that they’re the perfect parent. But the more infants are pacified with drugs, the more likely parents are to avoid contact with welfare agencies and to disappear off the radar. This means that infant doping is sometimes only discovered when a child is removed from a family. For example, one child placed in foster care was unable to sleep, eat or drink; drug testing later revealed that the child was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from methadone administered by the parents.
Liquid methadone (Photo via)
I recently spoke to Lara O’Neil, a former heroin and methadone user who used to live in the UK but moved to Australia a few years ago. Her cousin used to give her two children, aged three and under, methadone because she believed it was the only way she could be a good parent to them.
“What she did was not a selfish act. My cousin was a street sex worker addicted to heroin. She was also a single mother living with two young children who were both born addicted to opiates,” said O’Neil. “With nobody to mind her two young children when she was working overnight, she would give them small amounts out of her black-market methadone supply to keep them quiet. She was scared that if her neighbours heard them crying they would report her to social services.
“She was very careful in the doping of her children, being an experienced user of opiates and a mother who had weaned her own children off opiates before. I think she did what she did with more knowledge than some people would perhaps like to realise.”
Lara told me that the children are now grown up, avoid drugs and have pursued high profile careers.
Baby doping doesn’t just involve methadone. A couple from Gloucestershire routinely drugged their two-year-old daughter with diazepam and the potent liquid paracetamol Medised for a year and a half. Despite their reasoning – that they were dosing their kids so they could “catch up on sleep” – they were both given suspended prison sentences in March of this year.
A carpet loomer in Afghanistan (Photo by Kevin Sites)
And this is a global habit, sometimes deeply rooted within local culture. For example, in Afghanistan – where opium is plentiful and cheap – some children are dosed with opium not only to help them sleep, but also to ease the pain of back-breaking labour, like carpet weaving. Doping kids with drugs is also used as an emergency option by some refugees; according to the UN Refugee Agency, Syrians fleeing the violence in their country in the last year have been sedating their children to keep them quiet while they escape.
Back in the UK, Judith Yates – an inner city Birmingham GP – told me that giving methadone to young children “is not as strange as you might think”.
Talking over the phone, she told me, “Up until 1992, doctors were still handing out grip water to mothers, which was 3.6 percent alcohol – that’s basically the same as giving your baby some beer. When the government banned doctors from giving it out, there was outrage in my surgery. I know of mothers of infants who, completely legally, go through a 100ml bottle of Calpol, a drug that can cause severe liver damage, every month.”
The stream of moral disgust directed at parents willing to take huge risks by pacifying their children with a potent drug like methadone is not surprising. Yet it’s the moral indignation and lack of understanding that forces this issue behind closed doors, therefore increasing the risk to children. So it seems obvious to me that if parents participating in this practice are encouraged to seek help without fear of being demonised or having their children seized from them, then the more capable we will be of putting this Victorian ghost to rest.
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