It was March 1998, and YSAS had only recently opened. The Director of Services, Peter Wearne, walked into the Brunswick Street offices and saw a young Vietnamese boy in the waiting room. The boy was tiny – almost waifish – and he wore an inner-city Catholic school uniform.
“Who’s the little guy with?” Peter asked one of the staff members. “He’s not with anyone,” came the reply. “He’s been brought in for treatment.”
Older drug dealers had recruited the schoolboy as a courier to transport heroin between housing estates, knowing that a minor would face limited charges if caught. Instead of being paid in cash, he was paid in heroin, and his dependency had escalated to the point where he was now using four times a day. He was only 11 years old.
A common accusation against people with substance misuse issues is that they have “chosen” that life for themselves. But when asked what they want to be when they grow up, argues Peter, how many school children say “I want to be a heroin addict” or “I want to spend my life in jail”? “Kids don’t say that, but they end up there,” says Peter. “Why?” Perhaps choice plays a lesser role in drug dependency than the public might think.
YSAS has helped thousands of young people over the last 15 years, but not all their stories have happy endings. Three years after that initial encounter with Peter, the schoolboy died of an accidental overdose. It was a heart-wrenching moment, one of many Peter has experienced in his 38 years working in the sector. “But that talked to me about how important it was the work we were doing,” he says. “Here were these incredible young people who were not getting help or assistance.”