By Kenneth Roy
Ten weeks before she finally succeeded in killing herself, Neve Lafferty made another of her many suicide attempts. On the morning of 27 July 2009, she was found semi-conscious in her bed in a Helensburgh children’s home.
Throughout that day, Neve repeatedly told anyone who would listen that she wanted to die (or ‘to be with Jonny’, her dead boyfriend – it amounted to the same thing) and that she could not understand why she was still alive.
Neve was seen by two local GPs, Dr Jason Fang and Dr William Brown. It seems that Dr Fang did not ask Neve why she took the tablets, and there is an implied mild criticism in the inquiry report that he did not think of referring her to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service), a specialist branch of the NHS.
Neither doctor thought that Neve needed to go to A & E. Could she, however, have been referred to the psychiatric unit at Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Glasgow? Dr Brown was well-informed about the pressure on beds there, and the particular shortage of beds for 14 to 16-year-old children. He was not hopeful about the chances of Neve being admitted.
Nevertheless, he felt that Neve should be given a psychiatric assessment. But by the time he saw her on the evening of 27 July, CAMHS had closed for the day. Emergencies in the lives of chaotic young people occur at any time, often at night, yet CAMHS observes the hours of a small town solicitor – 9 to 5.
Other than recording the fact, Sheriff Ruth Anderson had nothing to say in her judgement about this serious defect in the care of children at risk.
Neve, clearly still unwell, was eventually taken to A & E on 29 July. Nothing was done. Determined to die, she then cut her wrist and was re-admitted to the same A & E department 24 hours later. The wound was stitched, but no further action was deemed to be necessary. Did the duty doctors not detect some connection between these events or discern their significance? The hospital in Paisley escapes without censure in Sheriff Anderson’s report – a report rightly critical of many other agencies and individuals.
The most the sheriff suggested – and it was only a suggestion – was that ‘consideration should be given’ to introducing a system of automatic referral to a psychiatrist when a young patient in A & E exhibits symptoms of self-harm. Although this sensible policy – which is common practice in England – should be introduced without delay, there appears to be no urgency to do so on the part of the Scottish Government.
It was only when Neve’s stitches were being taken out – she required 16 for the wrist wound – that a locum became so anxious about the patient’s mental health that Neve was finally referred to CAMHS. Caring though this action was, the locum might as well not have bothered. Two months later, on the day she died, Neve was still waiting for an appointment.
Had she lived, she would have gone on waiting, perhaps for many months. We understand that, in March next year, there will be a new, improved waiting time target for CAMHS appointments. Scotland’s most vulnerable young people should then be seen within 26 weeks.
Does Sheriff Anderson think this is acceptable? Does the Scottish Government think it is acceptable? Would any minister dare to justify a waiting time of half a year for severely damaged young people?
The Crown asked Stephen Platt, professor of health policy at Edinburgh University, to prepare a report on the deaths of Neve Lafferty and Georgia Rowe. To the question, ‘Were their deaths preventable?’, Professor Platt replied: ‘Probably not’. It would be interesting to have the justification for this conclusion. Having studied the evidence, we have come to the opposite conclusion.
No therapy of any kind was ever given to Neve or Georgia, despite the frequently expressed view of Neve’s mother and Georgia’s aunt that therapy would be helpful, and there was no stability in their care. They were treated as human parcels: Neve was moved no fewer than five times in seven months, and between June 2008 and August 2009 Georgia lived at nine different addresses, mercilessly bullied at the last of them. Had there been both therapy and stability, their deaths might have been prevented.
Georgia’s unsuccessful attempt to strangle herself, not long before her final walk to the bridge, was treated by staff at the Good Shepherd Centre as a ‘cry for help’ – a phrase that ought to be expunged from the language. Had her suicidal intentions been taken seriously, her death might have been prevented.
In February 2009, a team leader in Argyll and Bute Council’s social work department, Adah Lambie, recommended that Neve should be returned to the care of her father, Paul Lafferty, a man with a violent past and a record of illegal drug-taking. The social work department knew of Lafferty’s appalling lifestyle, yet the move went ahead. Predictably, it was a disaster. Neve wrote: ‘…my dad had no money, both me and my dad had no money to eat, no electricity and not even any money for hot water to go for a bath’. Had Neve been removed from the malign influence of this man at an earlier stage, her death might have been prevented.
Neve’s social worker, Deborah Wicks, knew that her client required to be looked after in secure accommodation. Both girls also instinctively knew this. It is a distressing though largely overlooked fact that, in the last months of their lives, Neve and Georgia independently tried to break into the secure unit at Bishopton, knowing it to be a place of safety. Neither succeeded, and Deborah Wicks’s sound professional judgement was disgracefully undermined by her employers, Argyll and Bute Council. Had Deborah Wicks been listened to, Neve’s death might have been prevented.
For all these reasons, we do not share Professor Platt’s pessimism. In our view, both deaths could and should have been prevented.
‘Dont grieve for me,’ said Neve Lafferty in her suicide letter, ‘for now I’m free’. She would not have been surprised to learn that this desperate letter, leaving specific instructions for her funeral, was so little regarded that it was consigned to a file unread. ‘No one gave a shit,’ she wrote in the same letter. Two months later she left the Good Shepherd Centre for the last time, and walked with Georgia Rowe three miles to the Erskine Bridge, where the two girls linked arms on the barrier, their backs to the water.
Have their deaths changed anything? Does anyone give a shit now?
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review