The death of two teenage girls who jumped from the Erskine Bridge could have been prevented if the care home where they stayed took better precautions.
That was the damning verdict of Sheriff Ruth Anderson QC, who conducted a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) into the death of Niamh Lafferty, 15, and Georgia Rowe, 14. The girls fell to their deaths in a suicide pact on Sunday, October 4, 2009.
The sheriff found more staff should have been on duty at the Good Shepherd care home in Renfrewshire and harshly criticised the unit’s management. Her verdict listed several major failures as contributing to the girls’ suicide.
Sheriff Anderson linked bullying to the deaths. She stated managers should have”given proper regard to the serious nature of the bullying”, which went on for more than three months prior to the girls’ deaths.
The sheriff concluded care home bosses should have taken “appropriate steps” to remove either Georgia Rowe or a young person suspected of bullying her.
Only two members of staff were on duty on the night of the suicides, despite regulations requiring four staff to be present. Sheriff Anderson noted one worker had gone home sick, but the unit head decided against personally covering their absence.
The lack of cover meant only one member of staff was present in the unit, as the other was needed off-site to collect some of the girls and their meals. The remaining worker saw Gerogia and Niamh in their night clothes around 7:30pm, however they would shortly afterwards change into outdoor clothing and leave the unit unnoticed.
Sheriff Anderson stated the girls should not have been placed near to an unalarmed exit. It took them more than an hour to walk to the Erskine Bridge, but by the time staff noticed their absence they were dead.
CCTV cameras at the care home recorded the two girls leaving the unit, however the system was not monitored. The footage was first viewed after their deaths.
In her verdict, Sheriff Anderson noted: “The girls, having walked from the Good Shepherd Open Unit, stopped at a point near the centre of the Bridge. They removed their training shoes and placed them on the ground.
“Georgia left a photograph of herself and her half brother and sister in one of her shoes. A scarf was draped over the barrier by one of the girls.
“The two girls sat briefly on the barrier with their backs to the water. They linked arms just before falling backwards. Both girls died on impact with the water.”
Georgia and Niamh had been away from the unit over the weekend and the sheriff found they both appeared to be in good spirits. She noted their was no immediate cause for concern that either girl would self-harm.
However, Niamh had been discovered in a semi-conscious state in July 2009. An investigation found she had taken around 20 Valium tablets with the intention of ending her own life.
Her boyfriend died of a drug overdose in February 2009 and she had a history of self-harm, suicide attempts and expressing suicidal feelings. An Argyll and Bute Council care worker, who took Niamh to the Good Shepherd home, informed staff she said she could escape via the Erskine Bridge, as “staff would not chase anyone there in case she jumped.”
Georgia had also expressed suicidal thoughts and was once found with a ligature, fashioned from a pillowcase, tied around her neck. Sheriff Anderson found it was not appropriate to place her in an open unit as there was a clear risk of self-harm. The decision to place her there was made despite protests from her aunt, who believed Georgia needed to be a secure unit.
During his evidence to the FAI, Professor Stephen Platt of Edinburgh University expressed concerns that Georgia and Niamh were not considered suicide risks. Sheriff Anderson concluded his recommendations should be taken on board by care authorities.
Collete Bysouth, Niamh’s mum, had spent a happy final day with her daughter. Fighting back tears, Ms Bysouth said: “She waved at me, [with a] big happy smile and said ‘see you soon’. She was very much loved and very much wanted.”
Tanya Oliver was with her niece Georgia earlier that day. She said: “It couldn’t have been a happier day. They’ve left that unit and nobody knows why. They [care staff] didn’t even know until after they were dead. There was no security.”
The Good Shepherd Open Unit was closed in 2010 and has since been demolished. A statement from its management board, who still run the secure unit, said the girls’ deaths were “the saddest and most traumatic event” in the its history. They said the deaths were “a significant factor” in the open unit’s closure.
The statement added: “No-one who worked with Georgia and Niamh was unaffected by this tragedy, which was utterly unprecedented, both in the professional lives of staff and in the history of the institution. The impossibility of predicting such an event emerged in the evidence, but at the same time, weaknesses in the handling of the girls’ circumstances were identified, for which the board expresses its profound sorrow.”
The Good Shepherd Secure Unit is a separate institution and was not the subject of the fatal accident inquiry.