Cheryl McBride had just walked into someone’s home, uninvited, to take their Medicare and Centrelink cards.
As she tip-toed around, dodging the takeout boxes and stepping over dog faeces - so old it was white - she found the woman she’d asked to meet in her office countless times.
The mother was incoherent on the floor.
“I had to sort of step over her and then I said 'Look, I need your card. Where is your card?' She pointed to her bag, so I pulled it out of her wallet,” says McBride.
“I just remember looking at her, then riffling through her bag and thinking, ‘I’m a principal, going through somebody’s handbag!’”
Cheryl McBride is the Chairperson of the Public School Principals Forum and has entered over 50 homes in her 37 years on the job. Just like this instance, most are because her students – as young as five years old – are being neglected by drug addicted parents.
Ice has always been the most destructive, says McBride and it's a problem not isolated to her school.
Shoes on the wrong foot, slept-in uniforms, teeth not brushed, empty lunch boxes are the classic symptoms of children with ice addicted parents, claims McBride.
“I’ve seen other drugs have a serious long term outcome but ice seems to just diminish the humanity so quickly… there’s just this incredible need to fuel the addiction and everything else is second place,” McBride tells The Weekly Online.
“So much so that there’s no routine, there’s no regularity, there’s no expectations, no predictability. If a child is not of sufficient maturity to be able to manage themselves - and establish their own little routines, and get themselves to school - it’s completely destructive."
More than one in 14 Australians have tried ice and almost 200,000 Australians have used the drug in the past twelve months.
Of all illicit drugs, ice poses the highest risk to the Australian community according to the latest report from the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) on The Australian methylamphetamine market: The national picture.
An Australian Senate Committee last year claimed authorities have seized 2.9 tonnes of the drug smuggled into Australia in the last financial year compared to 1.8 tonnes the previous financial year.
And a 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) revealed the country’s ice use has more than doubled, increasing from 22 per cent in 2010 to 50 per cent three years later.
Sarah* - whose mother McBride stepped over – is one of the many children who have felt the impact of their parent’s rapid decline thanks to the drug.
In just year two, Sarah would walk herself to school every morning and sit in class attentively but it took the teachers, and McBride, weeks to discover why she wasn't learning.
The hearing aids Sarah required had been misplaced and – most importantly – not replaced by her single mother, whose ice addiction took priority over the four children she’d given birth to. And she’d failed to tell the school Sarah was hearing impaired.
A call from McBride to the local hearing center, a trip to Sarah’s mother’s home and an appointment at the surgery revealed the seven-year-old not only needed hearing aids, but an operation on her ear.
“We are in talking to the doctor, and he starts asking the standard questions. He asked, “What nationality?”
“I looked at [Sarah] and said, 'What nationality are you?'
"The doctor looked puzzled and queried: 'You’re not the mother?' And then we gave the whole spiel,” says McBride.
“He arranged all of the surgery - accepted my permission, accepted the nurses referral - and went on to give those services for nothing, so there was no gap. He arranged an anaesthetist and for somebody else to donate money to cover the entire stay.”
While McBride has often stepped out of the school yard to take care of vulnerable students, the drug has entered the playground, too, hand-in-hand with violence.
“We always tried to have that philosophy of - not exclusion of the community but - welcome of the community when it was acceptable,” says McBride, who ran Sarah Redfern primary – a school in Minto of Sydney’s Western suburbs.
At the time, community violence was high.
“So whatever was happening out there the kids knew 'when I walk in that door, I’m safe, I’m cared for, I’m clothed, I’m warm, I’m comfortable and secure in my teacher’s care,'" McBride says.
“But sometimes [the violence] would come in, and I deeply resented that but you just had to deal with it at the time.”
One afternoon, when McBride was watching the students go home at 3pm, a father “came flying down the playground” and – dodging the children – hid behind the Principal.
“He was holding me by the shoulders when another dad who was ‘off his tree’ came flying down with a golf stick, ready to hit the guy behind me,” McBride tells The Weekly Online.
McBride is sitting in the office of her Western Sydney school - the fourth school she’s run.
She is just over five feet tall, petite, with a blonde bob, donning a tracksuit as it’s ‘sports day’ on Fridays.
“I just put my hands up and said ‘Stop, there’s kids around. Stop. Stop…’ And he did. But I was really fearful I was going to get hurt, or the children would get hurt," she recalls.
“It was like nobody else existed in this world except the guy behind me.”
The man behind McBride, and the man in front of her were ice addicts, and the latter was accusing the former of reporting him to government services.
“When they’re incoherent, they automatically think ‘it’s my next door neighbour,'” says the Principal.
Months later, the man hiding behind McBride was punching a wall in her office in a violent rage, while the Principal and her staff hid his partner and children in a safe room on another occasion.
“We’d just call the police. He was very subject to those rages and I was used to him. After a while – it sounds ridiculous – but you sort of become callous to that behaviour,” says the Principal.
Another young couple in their early twenties who McBride witnessed the ice-provoked downward spiral eventually had their three children lifted, but not without resistance.
The father-of-three threatened to kill their newborn with an axe while government services stood outside.
The kids were lifted and placed with a new family.
“They were quite culturally different. They were Arabic,” says the Principal. Thankfully the children no longer arrived at school with their shoes on the wrong foot, and their lunch boxes were full. They recovered almost instantly.
“I think they were just so happy to be safe, and predictable – lunch, dinner and all the rest of it,” says McBride.
But where were government services when Sarah needed hearing aids?
“You’ve got to remember in a lot of cases government services resources don’t go very far and we do so much now in supporting children that sometimes you don’t even bother contacting them. If kids are not bringing lunch to school, we just give them something from the canteen,” says McBride.
“If they haven’t got proper shoes or it’s low level neglect we just deal with it.”
After entering 50 homes of students whose lives have been caught in the crossfire of ice, lower-level drugs, domestic violence and sexual abuse, McBride has surprisingly, never felt in danger.
“There was often a person who would pop open a window and say ‘Hey, I’ll look after your car while you’re there, Mrs McBride,’” says the Principal, smiling.
“There’s times when you realise you’re the sole carer for a child, and when you realise, the human spirit often rises to the occasion and teachers go beyond their strict role.”