Mother attacks charity over son’s overdose death

A HEART-BROKEN mother launched a scathing attack yesterday on the country’s leading homeless charity, after hearing how her son died alone in an emergency shelter after a heroin overdose.

Mary Gallagher said the Simon Community in Cork should review its “ridiculous” confidentiality policy in the wake of her son Tony’s tragic death just two weeks before last Christmas.

Despite repeated attempts, she said the charity repeatedly refused to tell her whether or not her son was staying at the shelter.

She said there are other families in similar situations who should be spared the agony her family suffered.

Her husband, and Tony’s stepfather, Brian Gallagher, said the Simon Community should be working with families and not against them.

Mr Staunton, 27, from Castlebar in Co Mayo, died in a bedroom in Cork Simon’s emergency shelter at Anderson’s Quay on the morning of December 14 last, Cork Coroner’s Court was told.

He was found by student placement worker, Noreen Breen, during morning room checks at about 10.30am. He was sitting in a slumped position on his bed with his head between his knees. There was vomit on the bed and on the floor.

Despite CPR being carried out by staff members Fiona Doyle and Joe Sheridan, Mr Staunton died.

Gardaí later found scorched tinfoil with traces of heroin, and a partially smoked cannabis joint on the floor of the room.

Assistant state pathologist, Dr Margaret Bolster said cause of death was aspiration of vomit due to heroin use.

She said although the heroin was at a low level, it would, in a non-habitual user, have suppressed the gag reflex. Mr Staunton choked on his own vomit.

His family accepted the verdict of death due to misadventure but they spoke out afterwards in the hope that Simon’s policy might change.

Tony was one of six children, a gifted musician and a Liverpool fan.

Tortured with alcohol and drug dependency problems, and with a history of self-harm, he left Ireland about two years ago and went to live in Britain under an assumed name.

His family told the inquest that they tried desperately over the years to encourage him to get help, but he refused. They eventually lost touch.

His older sister, Bernie, said she thought he was dead.

But the family never gave up and they contacted homeless agencies in Britain, including the Simon community, in an effort to track him down.

Mr Gallagher said they were all extremely helpful and told the family that Tony had never stayed in their shelters.

Two Irish hostels, one in Galway and the other in Derry, also spoke off the record to the family and said he had not stayed with them.

Then, last October, came a breakthrough.

Garda contacts in Co Mayo traced Tony to Cork and established that he was staying at the city’s emergency Simon shelter on Anderson’s Quay. Ms Gallagher said she and her family cared deeply for Tony and wanted to make sure he was OK.

But despite repeated phone calls to Cork Simon, she said managers consistently refused to give her any information.

“We tried and tried and tried until we were blue in the face,” she said.

“We begged them. But they would tell us nothing. They said it was because of their confidentiality policy. All I wanted to know was if he was there, and if he was safe, that’s all.”

Tony’s sister, Bernie, told the inquest that Tony phoned her just days before his death to say he was looking forward to going home to Co Mayo for Christmas. She thought Simon managers would have seen this as a positive development.

“I accept that some people who use homeless shelters do not want to be found,” she said.

“But the fact that Tony made contact with me in the days before his death should have been taken into account.”

Director of Cork Simon, Colette Kelleher, said the organisation has a policy of not commenting on individual cases.

“This was a terrible, untimely death of a young man. And we extend our sympathies to the family,” she said.

She declined to comment further.

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