| 8.4°C Dublin

Terry Prone: A star pupil at 16, a drug user at 18 after moving in with his addict mum. Who let this happen?

He was smoking a joint in the bath when the cops came for him.

He had marijuana to the value of €18,000 -- enough to roll a few more joints when he needed them.

Or do a bit of drug-dealing. He was 16 years of age, living with his mother, at the time of the arrest.

Another teenage loser, you might think, breaking his poor mother's heart.

Except it's not quite that simple in Noel Farmer's case. He wasn't a loser.

He was a winner. He'd been a dream student, bagging nine honours in his Junior Cert. He played football -- and he played chess. Pictures of him from that period show him looking fit, open and happy.

"You'd expect him to be dismantling his stall at the Young Scientist Exhibition," was how a friend of mine summed it up.

All credit to him -- and to his granny, who raised him.

Proud

His granny, in common with many other grandparents around the country, was the one who stepped in when his parents failed him.

At a time when she could have expected to take her ease, his granny took into her home a little boy both of whose parents were druggies.

She provided him with a disciplined, safe childhood.

While his parents absorbed illegal substances and spent time in custody, she surrounded this lovely, bright, talented boy with the boundaries, the rules and the love he needed. She was entitled to be proud of him. He was entitled to be proud of himself.

Except that, when he was 16, he thought it would be a good idea to move in with his mother for a while.

His mother being "more of a friend than a mother" to him. A dire and dangerous friend. Soon, the star pupil was fogged with drugs, expelled from school.

On the road to No Town.

The boy wasn't prevented from making the decision to leave his grandmother .

No one in a position of authority in the state stopped this move by him.

And that's a tragedy.

Damage

The problem is that Noel Farmer's life was at the centre of a collision of good intentions and civil rights.

Childcare professionals know that removing a child from even the most dysfunctional family may do terrible damage to the child.

In fact, we all know that, since the investigations into the institutional care of children. In the early 20th century, the State simply took children away from "bad" parents and put them into care. Big mistake. Tragedy.

But now, it's swung the other way. Now, the state, when it encounters parents like Noel Farmer's, thinks twice about putting them into care.

It looks for ways to surround the child with as near to its natural family as possible.

It recognises the child's rights. The end result, nine times out of 10, is immeasurably better.

Not in Noel's case, though. Not in Noel's case. At 18 years of age, he can't be forced back into his granny's care.

More's the pity.

Even when he decided to move in with his mother, the State probably couldn't stop him. More's the pity. He had rights.

He didn't, as a teenager filled with raging hormones, tired of his grandmother's orderly upbringing and fascinated by his mother's lifestyle, have the judgment to make the decision he made. The consequences are horrific.

A talented, diligent young man filled with promise now stands in the wreckage of his life, carrying a conviction on his record. More's the pity.

None of us should shrug this off.

We can't afford to, because Noel Farmer is not a unique case.

Other children, lovingly and effectively raised by their grandparents, are facing the same crazy "choice" of joining parents who have utterly failed at parenthood. We have to find ways to prevent the Noel Farmer tragedy recurring, and we have to find them fast.

Because the grim fact emerging is this: a mother's love is not always a blessing.