The Story of Adam, 14

What the suicide of a schoolboy reveals about Britain's treatment of young offenders
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The Independent Online

With a small blue tent slung over his shoulder as he rode his silver bike, 14-year-old Adam Rickwood had everything to live for as the Stoops and Hargher Clough estate in Burnley, Lancashire, basked in the first warm nights of summer, 10 weeks ago.

As usual, he and his two closest friends were setting up a camp for the summer in the small field set amid the estate's back-to-backs. Romance was flourishing with his first steady girlfriend, and, best of all, he had just won the windsurfing competition on an outing to a nearby activity centre.

"We never heard the last of that windsurfing," said one of the two friends, Robert Whitehead, 18. "He was in his element."

Two and a half months later, Adam's family and friends are struggling to come to terms with the news that he had been found hanged at a detention centre 150 miles away in County Durham. He had become the saddest of statistics: the youngest boy in British penal history to die in custody. He was awaiting trial.

Figures released yesterday revealed that the number of children being detained has risen by almost 50 per cent during the past nine months, to the current figure of 2,637. Since 1998, 14 children have committed suicide in custody. Adam was the fifteenth.

One in 10 of the children in custody has self-harmed, and Adam's family disclosed yesterday that the boy had a history of hurting himself - overdosing on tablets once and cutting his wrists on several occasions. They demanded to know how he could have died when the Hassockfield secure training centre had been told he was a suicide risk.

Adam's mother, Carol Pounder, 36, said her son was on suicide watch and was to be observed every 15 minutes. "The cuts were so deep into his neck that he must have been there much longer than that and I want to know why," she said, before travelling north to see the Durham coroner.

The campaign group Inquest demanded a change in policy to ensure that vulnerable children such as Adam are placed in care, not detention centres. The Howard League for Penal Reform accused David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, of grossly misusing custody for children. "We are failing these most vulnerable of children,'' said its director, Frances Crook.

To those who have camped with him over the past five summers, listening to music on a cassette recorder and enjoying sausages cooked on disposable barbecues, Adam seemed an unlikely child to have reason to take his own life.

He was smart and that was especially evident when he took on his friends at the PlayStation version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? "We used to call him brainy," said Damien Whitehead, 15, one of the camping group. "He got a lot of questions right on the trot and if the questions were on animals - well, he was in his element."

Adam's other passions included scrambling motorbikes and football - he was a Manchester United fan and regularly won the target practice competitions organised at a local community centre on the Sunday activity days. Until, that is, he was taken into custody.

There were also fancy dress competitions at the community centre: Adam, aged seven, dressed as Elvis and doing a rendition of "Hound Dog" is especially fondly remembered.

Nothing, though, matched taking his Jack Russell, Floppy, and heading for the hills above Burnley to go ferreting and hunting for rabbits. "He'd do anything that involved animals - even cleaning out my pigeons,'' said Margaret Whitehead, mother of some of Adam's camping friends.

But behind the exuberance, Adam had his share of troubles. Life at home was not always harmonious and, after moving from Hargher Clough primary school to secondary school, he found himself in trouble with teachers. By 2002, he had been excluded.

No one would pretend he was an angel, but as he moved between schools, Adam also began self-harming. "He would cut his wrists," said his grandmother, Margaret Rickwood, 63. "Nothing deep, to do any real damage. But something was wrong." On one Bonfire Night, he was admitted to Burnley General Hospital after taking an overdose of tablets. The precise cause of his distress is unclear but a defining period in his life may have been the 18 months in which his two grandfathers and a grandmother died. "We knew how hard those deaths hit him,'' said Mrs Whitehead.

Encounters with Lancashire police had been limited to a few warnings about scrambling old motorbikes, but then, a few months ago, he clashed on the Old Accrington Road near his home with a man in his 20s.

Adam, who had started sometimes to drink too much, was charged with wounding after the man was left needing intensive care for a stomach wound caused by a bottle.

At first, Adam coped with time in custody. He was sent to a care facility at Haslingden, half an hour from home. He was happy enough when he was given the task of looking after the chickens. "It was run by young people and he liked it," said his grandmother. "It was also near enough for us to go up each night. But he knew it was temporary and that terrified him."

Worried about being moved to a penal detention centre, Adam absconded and ran home - defying a court order banning him from Burnley. He was removed to Hassockfield after voluntarily attending court for a remand hearing.

Adam was subdued when his grandmother visited him for the last time, seven days ago. He cut their meeting short by 15 minutes - something he had never done before - telling her he wanted to use the gym. "He was just not really interested in the visit. He was not my Adam," said Mrs Rickwood. "Something has gone on but I don't know what."

Adam was still subdued when his mother and stepfather, John, visited him on Saturday and, within 24 hours, Hassockfield had called Mrs Pounder to say Adam had been restrained during an "incident" and would not be calling her that night because he was upset. "I tried to tell them something would happen. He was not happy there at all," said Mrs Pounder. At 3.20am the next day, police phoned to say Adam had been found dead three hours earlier. He was to have had his application for bail heard the same day.

CHILDREN IN JAIL

2,637 under-18s are in secure detention, compared with 1,769 in November last year

The number of juveniles in custody has more than doubled since 1993

Since 1998, 14 children have killed themselves while in custody

85 per cent of juveniles reoffend within two years of release