An inquiry into a suicide pact between two teenage girls has found their deaths "may have been avoided".****
Niamh Lafferty, 15, and Georgia Rowe, 14, died after jumping more than 100ft from the Erskine Bridge on October 4, 2009, in an apparent suicide pact.
They were both residents at a unit for vulnerable girls between the ages of 12 and 18, called the Good Shepherd Centre's open unit in Bishopton, Renfrewshire.
This inquiry was conducted over several months by Sheriff Ruth Anderson at Paisley Sheriff Court. It heard evidence from social workers from Argyll and Bute Social Work Department, who were responsible for Niamh's care, and from workers from Hull City Council, who had charge of Georgia's care.
It also heard evidence from staff at the Good Shepherd open unit and from the Care Inspectorate.
On Monday, the findings of the inquiry noted that the deaths "may have been avoided" had "reasonable precautions" been taken.
Sheriff Anderson said this included the Good Shepherd open unit having four staff on duty at the time, as it was required to do under an agreement with the Scottish Care Commission.
The sheriff also noted the suicide pact may have been avoided had the pair been housed in the main open unit at the centre, and not in a "self-contained flat on the ground floor directly opposite an unalarmed fire exit door". In her findings, Sheriff Anderson noted "there was no accident. Both deaths were suicides."
Both of the teenagers walked around three miles from the centre to the bridge on the day of their deaths, the sheriff found. In her findings, Sheriff Anderson found that a "more robust approach to the issue of absconding" should have been adopted by the Good Shepherd Open Unit, which was shut down in 2010. She also wrote that the management at the facility should have "given proper regard to the serious nature of the bullying" of Georgia at the hands of another resident.
The Good Shepherd Centre open unit said: "What happened on October 4, 2009, was the saddest and most traumatic event in the history of the Good Shepherd open unit and was a significant factor in the eventual closure of that unit and redundancy of the staff in June 2010."
It 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 open unit was closed in June 2010 and has now been demolished. The Good Shepherd secure unit is a separate institution and was not the subject of the fatal accident inquiry's evidence gathering or deliberations.
During the inquiry, the sheriff heard that Niamh was placed in the secure unit on March 16, 2009, after her 16-year-old boyfriend Jonny McKernon died of an overdose.
Georgia was removed from a foster placement with her aunt in 2008 and taken into care in Hull, East Yorkshire. She was fostered by her aunt in Sorn, Ayrshire, as a baby because her mother was unable to care for her before that eventually broke down and she was moved to the open unit.
During the evidence, the inquiry heard from a social worker who said Georgia seemed "happy" and "excited" around a month before her death.
At a previous unfair dismissal claim at an employment tribunal, a former employee of the centre said the deaths of the girls had impacted on the running of the facility, while in 2008 a former resident claimed they had been abused while staying there, although no evidence of it was ever found.
Georgia's aunt Tanya Oliver said she welcomed the Sheriff's recognition that the move from temporary foster care to secure accommodation in Hull had been a "disaster" for Georgia.
In a statement, Ms Oliver said although the reason why Georgia fell from the bridge will never be answered, she now knows how it came about that the teenager got to the bridge in the first place and she now hopes wider lessons can be drawn from this tragedy by those charged with the care of looked after children.
- The full findings of the sheriff in the fatal accident inquiry
- Contact Samaritans for emotional support on 08457 909090 or email email@example.com.
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