The girls on the bridge: Part 1 – The suicide letter: ignored until it was too late

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By Kenneth Roy

The basic facts are these. Naimh Frances Bysouth (or Lafferty), born on 18 June 1994, and Terrie Faye Oliver (also known as Georgia May Rowe), born on 13 February 1995, walked a distance of three miles from the Good Shepherd Centre, in Bishopton, Renfrewshire, to the Erskine Bridge, arriving near the centre of the bridge just before 9 o’clock on the evening of Sunday 4 October 2009. They had walked for about an hour to their pre-planned destination.

When they arrived at the barrier, the two girls took off their training shoes and put them on the ground. Georgia – we shall call her Georgia – left a photograph of herself and her half-brother and sister in one of her shoes. One of the girls draped a scarf over the barrier. They sat briefly on the barrier with their backs to the water, linked arms, and fell backwards. The force of the impact killed them instantly. Naimh – who preferred to be called Neve; so we shall call her Neve – was 15 years old; Georgia 14.

A fatal accident inquiry heard by Sheriff Ruth Anderson QC decided that they took their own lives. Why they chose to do it together, and why they chose to do it that night, will never be known. Neve had just returned to the Good Shepherd after weekend home leave; Georgia had been out for a meal with her aunt. Neve came back at 7pm, Georgia 10 minutes later. They appeared to be in good spirits: there was nothing in their behaviour which gave any cause for concern. At 7.30, a member of staff saw both girls in their night clothes. Fifteen minutes later they had changed into outdoor gear and were on their way out of the building. By 9 o’clock they were dead in the waters of the Clyde.

Other than the basic facts, what do we know of this case? There are several misconceptions, some more serious than others. We have been told that the girls were close friends. A minor matter: but they weren’t. An impression has been given that, although both were in care, their backgrounds were relatively normal. On the contrary, their personal histories were shocking. The outcome of the inquiry into their deaths, as reported in the press, was grossly simplistic: if there had been more staff on duty in the Good Shepherd Centre on the evening the girls absconded, or if they had been accommodated more securely, their deaths that night might have been avoided.

Is that it? Far from it.

The true story is one of systemic failure, a reluctance to confront official shortcomings, a judgement of extraordinary passivity about the culpability of one of the key players in the unfolding tragedy, and two needless deaths. That is why, today and for the rest of this week, we will be attempting to unravel the case of the girls on the bridge.

Neve’s story

Neve’s parents separated when she was two years old. She lived with her mother, Colette, a caring person by all accounts, but went on seeing her dysfunctional father, Paul Lafferty, a man with a violent past and a record of illegal drug-taking. The turning point in her life came when she witnessed an incident involving Lafferty and another man which led to her father’s trial for murder. He was acquitted in November 2006, but Neve’s life was permanently affected. Her behaviour deteriorated abruptly.

In 2007, she told her mother that she had swallowed an overdose of herbal tablets. In April 2008, she cut her wrists. She was taking drugs, drinking heavily, shoplifting and associating with delinquents; she was reported for assaulting a fellow pupil at school. She was now spending more time with her father, who had no money to eat or to heat his house. Lafferty decided that he could no longer cope with Neve, but she refused to live with her mother.

In June 2008 she became a client of Argyll and Bute Council, and was in and out of the open unit of the Good Shepherd Centre at Bishopton, where absconding could not have been easier. The unmanned fire exit door was the usual escape route.

Neve had a boyfriend, Jonny McKernan, who was as messed up as she was. On 19 February 2009, Jonny appeared in court on a charge. Two days later he killed himself. On 3 March, the day of his funeral, Paul Lafferty was admitted to a psychiatric unit (he committed suicide in 2010, after Neve’s death). Neve had now lost her boyfriend and, effectively, her father. Her fragile life degenerated into chaos.

On 5 March she self-harmed by scratching her face and the following day, in the open unit, she drank a 200ml bottle of witch hazel. She was taken to the Royal Alexandria Hospital in Paisley but ‘required no treatment’. Eight days later she went missing from the unit for a full weekend, which she spent with a man, sleeping in a car.

On 19 March, she was finally transferred to the secure unit at Bishopton for her own protection. For a few months she was closely supervised. During this period, she repeatedly told staff that, if she could, she would ‘go mad’ with drugs and drink. She talked about ending her life. She talked about ‘wanting to be with Jonny’. She told a case worker that she would take loads of ‘blues’ (street valium), mix it with vodka, go to sleep and not wake up. Neve was ‘calm and focussed’ when she said these things.

A place of safety?

On 26 June, there was a serious breakdown in communications at Argyll and Bute Council. A man named Roger Wilson, ‘resources services manager’, told the head of the children’s department, Douglas Dunlop, that Neve’s social worker, Deborah Wicks, had recommended that she should be transferred from the secure unit at Bishopton to the open unit. Dunlop, without seeing the case papers, decided that Neve should be transferred instead to one of Argyll and Bute’s own children’s homes.

Deborah Wicks had not recommended that Neve should be transferred from a secure unit to an open one or to a children’s home. She was firm in her belief that Neve required the safety of secure accommodation, and refused to attend the children’s panel hearing at which she would have been expected to recommend the move.

Despite her implacable opposition, the move was duly ratified on the recommendation of another social worker who took over responsibility for Neve and would continue in that role until Neve’s death.

A case worker at East King Street, the children’s home in Helensburgh where Neve was sent, prepared a note: ‘Niamh self harms – cutting wrists, taking paracetamol, drank half a bottle of witch hazel, and has threatened to hang herself – numerous sucide attempts’. Was this a suitable environment for Neve? The staff were doubtful, to say the least.

Neve plastered her bedroom wall with large laminated photographs of Jonny. According to one care worker her room ‘resembled a shrine’. She absconded on several occasions, took drink to the home, and on 27 July was found semi-conscious in bed after a valium overdose. She again said she wanted to be with Jonny. She said she was sorry to have wakened up.

Neve was seen by two GPs in Helensburgh. Neither was of the opinion that she required to go to hospital, though one thought that she needed a psychiatric assessment.

It was obvious that East King Street could not keep Neve safe. It should have been obvious before she was referred there.

The journey

On 28 July, her carers decided that she should go back to the open unit – repeat, the open unit – at Bishopton as an emergency measure. When Anne Berry, a case worker at East King Street, was helping Neve to collect her belongings for the transfer, she found a letter lying beside her bed.

Anne Berry, having glanced at the final line, quickly put the letter in her pocket. Neve was taken to the open unit in her night dress and with vomit stains on her clothes. During the car journey she said several times that she wanted to be with Jonny and tried to get out of the car. She said that if a young person wanted to run away from the open unit, she just had to go to the Erskine Bridge because the staff would not chase anyone there – in case they jumped.

At reception, Anne Berry gave the letter to a case worker named Marjory Thomson, who copied it and returned the original to Anne Berry. When Anne Berry told a social worker about the letter, she was advised to put it in Neve’s file at East King Street. The letter remained there unread – until the police discovered it after her death.

The existence of the letter was, however, brought to the attention of the head of the Good Shepherd unit, a man named Sandy Cunningham. He did not ask to see it. Nor did he discuss its contents with the social work department.

Neve’s move from East King Street to the open unit should have been formally considered by the children’s panel. It wasn’t. The panel should have reviewed the transfer. It didn’t.

When Neve’s response to the transfer was to take another overdose, she was again seen in A & E at the Royal Alexandria Hospital where she ‘required no treatment’. No further assessment was ordered by the duty doctor. The case worker who accompanied Neve had not been told about the letter.

Two days later Neve tried to break into the secure unit at Bishopton. She was so distressed that she had to be physically restrained. She cut the inside of her wrist with a razor, and was taken once more to the Royal Alexandria Hospital. Sixteen stitches, but no further assessment recommended. The old story.

On 5 August, Neve saw a locum to have the stitches removed. The locum was concerned about her mental condition. As a result, Neve was referred to the NHS’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) on 7 August 2009.

On the day she died two months later, she was still waiting for an appointment.

The letter

Dear Mum

Sorry about this but no one gave a shit what was best fur me. Don’t know if you still have my old letter but I want tae be buried wae my neclace Jonny bought me. I want buried next tae Jonny and my name spelt Neve Lafferty and can you play P.diddy and Faith Evans missing you at my funeral once again I’m sorry hut I don’t need tae deal wae anythin anymore. Tell my dad I love him.

Lov Yaz all Neve XXX
Don’t grieve for me for now I’m free.

At the inquiry, Marjory Thomson denied ever having seen this letter – a denial which the court rejected. Sandy Cunningham, the head of the unit, was reluctant to accept it as a suicide note. Roger Wilson, the manager who apparently misrepresented the wishes of the dead girl’s social worker, left for New Zealand a week before the inquiry began. The court asked him to provide an affidavit. He failed to respond.

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