By Kenneth Roy
On Sunday 4 October 2009, two girls in the care of the Good Shepherd Centre, Bishopton, Renfrewshire – Neve Lafferty, aged 15, and Georgia Rowe, aged 14 – linked arms and threw themselves off the Erskine Bridge. This is the second part of SR’s examination of a tragic and perplexing case.
There was a possible explanation for the degeneration of Neve Lafferty’s fragile life into chaos. She witnessed a violent incident involving her dysfunctional, drug-addicted father in which a man died. Neve’s father went on trial for his murder. Paul Lafferty was acquitted, but the trauma left a permanent impression on Neve.
There was no life-changing event in the case of Georgia Rowe: she was a deeply vulnerable child from the start. Born in Hull to a single mother, she was the subject of a care order within 10 months of her birth in 1995. The order (granted by a family court) remained in place until her death 14 years later.
Around the time of her first birthday, Georgia was sent to Scotland to be cared for by her maternal aunt, Tanya Oliver, in the Ayrshire village of Sorn. Tanya treated Georgia as her own daughter.
From the age of seven, there was a steady deterioration in Georgia’s behaviour. She lied, she was aggressive and sometimes violent, and as she grew older she was sexually precocious. In 2008 Tanya decided that she could no longer cope. Georgia was placed with successive foster carers in Jedburgh and Hull, the Hull placement breaking down because of persistent absconding, Georgia’s use of drink and drugs, and her liking for high-risk sex.
In March 2009 it was agreed that she should be transferred to the secure unit at the Good Shepherd Centre. It was thought to be sympathetic to Georgia’s own wishes: she had indicated a desire to return to Scotland. But there was no improvement in her behaviour. She lashed out at staff, shouted and swore, squealed and made strange animal-like noises. She had to be physically restrained on a number of occasions. When she recovered, Georgia said she had no memory of these outbursts.
On 7 May 2009, she ripped up a pillowcase and formed a ligature. She put it round her neck and attempted to strangle herself. This was interpreted by the staff not as a serious suicide attempt but as a ‘cry for help’.
Inexplicably, her carers decided that Georgia was fit to be transferred from the secure unit at Bishopton to the open unit, where absconding through the fire exit door was routine and easily accomplished. Her aunt was appalled. There was a heated discussion between Tanya Oliver and the staff, but Georgia was moved anyway. It was not long before she absconded.
There was a very good reason for Georgia’s desperation to leave the open unit. She was being badly and systematically bullied by another of the girls in the unit, a girl from Fife known only as ‘AM’.
The first time she absconded, Georgia refused to return to Bishopton voluntarily. She jumped repeatedly in front of moving cars, and when the police arrived she ran into a garden making animal noises. She had to be handcuffed for the journey back.
The bullying continued. It was a daily occurrence. On one occasion, AM intimidated Georgia by hiding a pair of scissors in the waistband of her jeans, making it known to Georgia that they were there. Another time, when the girls were heading for the swimming pool, AM told Georgia that when they got there she was going to drown someone – there was no doubt who she had in mind. Georgia refused to go to the pool that day.
Georgia absconded many times. Just as a distressed Neve Lafferty once tried to break into the secure unit for her own protection, so independently did Georgia. She was again physically restrained and in a condition of extreme distress as she was returned to the open unit. She told staff that AM was planning to stab her in the face with a piece of glass.
Nothing was done to stop the bullying. Nothing was done to remove the bully.
When Sandy Cunningham, the man in charge of the unit, gave evidence at the inquiry into the deaths of Georgia Rowe and Neve Lafferty, Sheriff Ruth Anderson formed the impression that he was seeking to minimise the ‘extremely serious nature of the bullying in an establishment for which he had overall management responsibility’. Mr Cunningham is no longer employed at the Good Shepherd; he is listed in the court papers as an education officer with Glasgow City Council.
A day out
On 26 September 2009, eight days before she killed herself, Georgia responded to a further threat from AM – to put her head through a ******* window – by absconding. She met up with another girl – not Neve Lafferty – and they boarded a train at Bishopton for Glasgow.
The two girls hung about the city centre, where they were picked up by an older man who took them to a block of flats and plied them with alcohol and drugs. They spent the night with this man and had a conversation about committing suicide. Neither girl thought that she had anything to look forward to in this life.
The following morning they went to a police station and were returned to the Good Shepherd. In the car on the way to Bishopton, Georgia repeated that she did not want to go back to the open unit to be bullied by AM.
On 4 October, Georgia went out for a meal with her aunt, Tanya Oliver. She returned to the unit at 7.10pm and changed into her night clothes, as did Neve Lafferty who had got back from weekend home leave 10 minutes earlier. Both seemed cheerful and gave no cause for concern.
No-one knows what happened next – what passed between the girls. But by 7.45, unseen by anyone except CCTV, they were dressed in outdoor gear and on their way out of the building. They walked together for three miles to the Erskine Bridge. By 9 o’clock they were dead.
A & E
Between the stories of Neve Lafferty and Georgia Rowe there are many striking similarities. A failure to listen by those caring for them is the most obvious and disturbing one. How many more times did Neve and Georgia have to exhibit signs of suicidal intent before someone took them seriously?
But there was one important difference.
Yesterday, we described how on three separate occasions in the months leading up to her suicide, Neve Lafferty was admitted to the A & E unit of the Royal Alexandria Hospital in Paisley. In March, she was taken there having swallowed a 200ml bottle of witch hazel. She ‘required no treatment’.
On 29 July, she was there again after another overdose. Again she ‘required no treatment’ and no referral was made by the duty doctor.
The following day, 30 July, she entered the A & E unit a third time having cut the inside of her wrist with a razor. The wound required 16 stitches, but again there was no referral.
Three suicide attempts; two visits to A & E within 24 hours; but still no referrals.
This neglect of Neve’s mental welfare would not have been permitted south of the border. When Georgia Rowe was admitted to the A & E unit of Hull Royal Infirmary after an overdose, she was referred to the psychiatric service as a matter of course. She was seen by a mental health specialist, who carried out an assessment despite the patient’s reluctance to co-operate. The referral did not save Georgia’s life – but it might well have done.
The automatic referral of young self-harmers which is policy in England should be adopted without delay in Scotland. It is more than a little surprising that Sheriff Anderson did not see fit to make this a recommendation in her judgement.
Tomorrow: Part 3 of The girls on the bridge
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review