The world of the children 1 – The shocking story behind the Bonhill suicides

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By Kenneth Roy
 
Sometimes we have to pull our socks up but generally speaking we seem to be doing a great job in service users’ eyes and that makes a huge difference to our levels of motivation in always going the extra mile for them
 
This statement in the name of Fiona Stringfellow, chief executive of the Blue Triangle Housing Association, appeared online on 14 August.

By Kenneth Roy
 
Sometimes we have to pull our socks up but generally speaking we seem to be doing a great job in service users’ eyes and that makes a huge difference to our levels of motivation in always going the extra mile for them
 
This statement in the name of Fiona Stringfellow, chief executive of the Blue Triangle Housing Association, appeared online on 14 August. Two weeks later, on 28 August, Sammy Joe McGeachy, aged 17, committed suicide in a supported housing unit in Bonhill, Dunbartonshire, owned by West Dunbartonshire Council and managed by the Blue Triangle Housing Association. Twelve days later, on 8 September, another 17-year-old girl in the same unit, Catherine Bradley, took her own life.

Within a fortnight, 25% of the population of this eight-bedroom supported housing unit, staffed 24 hours a day seven days a week with a ‘key worker’ attached to each resident, committed suicide. Talk of ‘pulling our socks up’ seems unequal to the tragedies at Bonhill.

When the chief executive put her positive statement online, the two girls were still alive: she was not to know what was about to happen. But we have now learned that the situation at Bonhill is worse than we reported last week. On 2 June, less than two months before Sammy Joe committed suicide, a 32-year-old man was found dead in the same tiny unit.

His death has not been public knowledge until now, and it is not known whether it was from natural causes or intentional. We understand that this earlier death will not be considered by the local review which has been set up in West Dunbartonshire. The review will, however, include in its investigations the suicide of 27-year-old Catherine Atkins, who died on 16 July, in the neighbouring Blue Triangle unit in Alexandria.

It is clear, as a result of the Scottish Review’s inquiries, that there have been four deaths at these units in recent months: one in June, one in July, one in August, one in September. In other words, the death rate is running currently at one a month.

We asked the Care Inspectorate, the official guardian of standards at residential establishments in Scotland, to supply this magazine with a copy of its reports on the most recent inspections of the Bonhill and Alexandria premises. The inspectorate did so for Alexandria; it is a regrettably anodyne document in the light of all that has happened since. It has, however, failed to provide an inspection report for Bonhill despite two requests. We are left to conclude that no such report exists.

How does the chief executive of the Blue Triangle Housing Association know that it seems to be doing ‘a great job’ in the eyes of its ‘service users’? This claim is made on the basis of favourable comments received from service users – if we must use that dehumanising term. Yet, in the section headed ‘Public governance and accountability’ in a statutory questionnaire completed for the Scottish Housing Regulator as recently as the spring of this year, the association was asked (in 2B): ‘Have you asked your tenants during the last three years about how satisfied they are with the overall service you provide?’. To this question Blue Triangle put a cross in the ‘No’ box.

The regulator makes it clear that, if no surveys have been carried out, a reason must be given. Blue Triangle’s answer was that ‘we have no tenants, only occupants of hostels’. It added that ‘we survey all of our occupants on a quarterly basis and also on the exit from our accommodation’.

This is not the first time there has been some confusion about public governance and accountability in the affairs of the association. In a thorough review of its activities conducted by the now defunct public body Scottish Communities in 2006, it was noted that Blue Triangle ‘does not consult its residents about policies relating to housing management, rents, repairs or maintenance even when the proposal is likely to directly affect the residents’, adding that ‘Blue Triangle does not always fully record details of, and outcomes from, residents’ complaints’.

Were socks pulled up? It is difficult to say. In terms of public accountability and access, there has been no successor to the admirably detailed report of Scottish Communities which gave Blue Triangle eight weeks to ‘respond effectively’ to its criticisms. The equivalent these days appears to be the tick-box questionnaire of the Scottish Housing Regulator. Not quite the same thing – since the questionnaire is completed by the client organisation and there is no public evaluation of the answers.

The use of the word ‘hostels’ in reply to 2B is exceptional. This is the only evidence we have found of Blue Triangle using the word in any of its official literature. It does not appear, for example, on its website, which describes its residential units in nine local authority areas as ‘projects’. It emphasises that the ‘project’ at Bonhill is for vulnerable young people, aged 16 and over, who have a bedroom of their own but share a kitchen, bathroom and lounge. Whatever it is – a hostel, a project, or both – one thing is clear: it receives substantial public funding.

That being so, and given the shared nature of the facilities, it should be a matter of public concern that it was deemed acceptable for a deeply troubled teenage girl – Catherine Bradley – to have been housed at the same time in the same small unit as a 32-year-old man who was subsequently found dead in unexplained circumstances.

Is a man of 32 a ‘vulnerable young person’ in the sense usually conveyed by that term? Does this mixture of gender and age happen routinely in Blue Triangle establishments? If it does, what is the extent of the risk assessment? What was it in this case? We trust that these questions will form part of the local review; and we repeat our call for the results of that review to be made public. We propose also that what we have discovered in the last week reinforces the need for a fatal accident inquiry.

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