Brief lives: the lost girls of Bonhill

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By Kenneth Roy
 
The girl on the left with the model looks – Sammy Joe – killed herself on 28 August. According to her diary, she felt worthless and believed that no-one would miss her. Her friend Catherine, the girl next door in more ways than one, killed herself less than a fortnight later. Both were 17 years old. Both died in Bonhill, Dunbartonshire, in supported housing accommodation owned by the local authority and administered by a Scottish charity.

By Kenneth Roy
 
The girl on the left with the model looks – Sammy Joe – killed herself on 28 August. According to her diary, she felt worthless and believed that no-one would miss her. Her friend Catherine, the girl next door in more ways than one, killed herself less than a fortnight later. Both were 17 years old. Both died in Bonhill, Dunbartonshire, in supported housing accommodation owned by the local authority and administered by a Scottish charity.

The media reporting of their deaths has been superficial, almost perfunctory. After the deaths of the girls on the Erskine Bridge, and the more recent case of the girl who threw herself off a tenement block in Ayr in circumstances which remain unexplained, it is possible that compassion fatigue is setting in over the suicides of Scottish teenage girls. It is no longer a phenomenon; it is happening too often for public curiosity to be sustained.

This magazine remains the only media outlet which was prepared to reveal one of the essential facts about the Ayr death: that Kayleigh Scott, aged 15, was formally in the care system – a ‘looked-after child’ to use the official terminology – at the time of her death. We criticised the disturbing lack of transparency and called for a fatal accident inquiry. There has been no word of such an inquiry. There is an unwillingness even to state plainly that Kayleigh committed suicide.

Likewise, the Bonhill suicides have been followed by official obfuscation. How Sammy Joe and Catherine took their own lives has not been publicly disclosed and may never be. This lack of openness is inexcusable. It would not be tolerated south of the border, where the coroner-led inquest guarantees clarity in such cases almost immediately. We repeat our call for a similar system to be introduced in Scotland.

In place of clarity we have had cloudy professional jargon about suicide prevention strategies, ‘pathways of information’, and multi-agency co-operation, as well as the usual assurances that, if there are lessons to be learned, lessons will be learned. Counselling has been offered to relatives of the dead girls and to staff and young people in the Bonhill unit (or ‘project’, as it seems to be called). We have not been short of official expressions of shock and dismay.

Yet there is a ritualistic quality about these responses. They vary little from case to case. Only the facts tend to be scarce. The pathways of information are unhappily littered with bureaucratic verbiage, and there is no public right-of-way. There is also a reluctance to admit context. There has, for example, been no acknowledgement that a third person – a young man – died recently in the same unit; or that a young woman committed suicide in a neighbouring unit at Alexandria administered by the same Scottish charity.

West Dunbartonshire Council, owner of the building at Bonhill and a ‘partner’ of the Blue Triangle Housing Association which runs it, has undertaken to conduct a formal review into the deaths of Sammy Joe McGeachy and Catherine Bradley. It would be astonishing if there were not to be such a review. But there is no obligation on the part of those conducting it to publish their findings; there is no suggestion that these findings will ever enter the public domain; and it follows that there will be no opportunity for a public evaluation of the thoroughness and quality of their investigation.

What do we know about Sammy Joe and Catherine? Little more than that they were deeply troubled girls, that at some stage they ‘hung out with the wrong crowd’ and became well known to social workers, that until fairly recently they were ‘looked-after’ children in the care system; and, beyond these fragments of two brief lives, that they ended their days in an eight-bedroom block, sharing a communal kitchen and lounge, operated by Blue Triangle.

What, then, do we know about Blue Triangle? It runs supported housing units in association with nine local authorities – Argyll and Bute, East Ayrshire, East Lothian, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, South Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire.

The charity states on its website that the main purpose of this accommodation is ‘to prepare service users for sustainable levels of independent living’. What this means is far from clear, but it is striking how often Blue Triangle refers to people as service users. The effect is inevitably dehumanising.

The charity gives an assurance that it manages its services in a ‘sensitive and cost-effective fashion’, that its aim is to ‘alleviate the effects of homelessness amongst service users’, and that it works to ‘ensure the comfort and safety of service users’. Each service user is allocated someone called a key worker. Are these key workers qualified social workers? Not necessarily.

Both girls died in their rooms within a fortnight of each other. This has provoked criticism of a lack of supervision, the implication being that Sammy Joe and Catherine were inmates of a care home. They were not. They were no longer in the care system at all. They were simply living in supported housing. But the charity’s establishments are answerable to the Care Inspectorate, so there is some public responsibility for their operation. We hope it is properly exercised and, just as important, seen to be properly exercised. If there has not been an urgent inspection of the Bonhill establishment by the Care Inspectorate, it should be done without further delay.

The overlooked fact about the status of Sammy Joe and Catherine has an important consequence. Had the girls still been in the care system, there would have been an obligation to report on their deaths to the Scottish ministers. Because they were not, there is no such obligation. This glaring loophole in the law protecting children and young people should be closed: the suicide of a young person formerly in care should be treated in exactly the same way as the suicide of a young person currently in care – it must be reported to the Scottish ministers in order to ensure a high degree of public accountability.

As things stand, we are living in a society which fails to place a proper value on the lives of its most vulnerable young people. This has to change. For Sammy Joe and Catherine, and all the others, this has to change.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review