Death a recurring theme for Good Shepherd's tragic teen

As calls grow for an inquiry into how two vulnerable girls slipped away from their care unit near Glasgow to commit suicide, Jonathan Brown reveals how violence and loss shaped Neve Lafferty's short life

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:27

Two security cameras now watch over the deserted cul-de-sacs around the squat grey blocks of flats at Kirkmichael, a small housing estate overlooking the Clyde estuary.

It was here, on this windy Dunbartonshire hillside three years ago, that the father of teenager Neve Lafferty fought a fatal knife battle with his next-door neighbour, the father of one of Neve's best friends.

Neighbours recall watching in horror as the heavily bleeding Paul Lafferty, known locally as "Toodles", dragged himself up the road moments after the violent clash. His adversary, Brian "Briggs" Folan, died. Residents on the block also complained of drug dealing, frequent visits by police – and a shooting.

Inside the Lafferty family flat, officers later discovered huge amounts of blood and three knives, one of which was alleged to have ended the life of Briggs. But while the High Court at Kilmarnock was later to accept Mr Lafferty's claim that he had struck out in self-defence – releasing him from Greenock prison where he had been on remand – the horror of the fight continued to be felt by his daughter long afterwards.

The events that unfolded that evening in April 2006 were to prove a turning point in the young life of the troubled teenager, who on Sunday night, together with her friend Georgia Rowe, 14 – a girl she had known for only eight weeks – sneaked out of the Good Shepherd care home where they were being looked after and walked three miles Erskine Bridge, a notorious suicide spot. There, like more than a dozen other desperate souls each year, they hurled themselves hand in hand into the fast-flowing waters of the Clyde 125ft below.

The girls' deaths have caused anguish not just among the families of the teenagers and their young friends, but also the ranks of Scotland's care professionals. Politicians now demand to know how danger signs were missed.

As society struggles with what lessons should be learnt, at the heart of the tragedy can be found two deeply troubled lives. The horror of the stabbing and the ensuing trial were not the only events to shatter Neve's adolescence. In February this year, the 15-year-old girl's boyfriend, Jonny McKernan, was found dead from a methadone overdose.

His death at the age of 16 was a second devastating blow to a girl struggling to make sense of the world. She tried to explain her torment via a heartfelt poem posted on her Bebo web page. "My heart still aches in sadness and secret tears still flow," she wrote. "When I die I'll go so far, I'll write his name on every star, so all the world can see how much he really means to me."

According to relatives, Neve's relationship with her mother Colette had broken down in the weeks leading up to her death. During a recent chance encounter in the street in Hellensburgh, the town where she grew up and where her mother still lives with her new partner, Neve told her that she was happy at the Good Shepherd and wanted to stay.

She had rejected an offer from her father to live with him in Denmark after he moved there to rebuild his life. The family said he had become worried over her heavy drinking and feared she was getting into drugs after discovering her with valium.

Although staff at the Good Shepherd believed the girls had just enjoyed a "happy and productive" weekend with relatives, it was clear they were far from content with life.

In another internet poem, Neve seemed to predict her suicide. "Me and you are friends ... you fight, I fight ... you hurt, I hurt ... you cry, I cry ... you jump off a bridge, I'll miss you!" Only a few days earlier she was said to have been deeply depressed after helping her late boyfriend's mother clean out his room.

While Neve had a history of self harm and had been undergoing psychological counselling, Georgia was described as a "well-liked and popular teenager". Though born in Hull, she had spent most of her life in Scotland and considered it to be her home, having attended a girls' secondary school in Glasgow.

She had spent some time at the Sutton Place safe centre in Hull, but had returned north of the border out of choice and saw it as a new beginning closer to her 58-year-old father Thomas, who lives in Ayrshire.

Nigel Richardson, chairman of the Hull Safeguarding Children Board, said she was known to social services and other agencies in the region. "From what we understand, Georgia was a bright and intelligent girl who was very well-liked and very popular," he said. "While we may never know what was going through the minds of either girl on Sunday evening, we'd like to reassure people that we are working closely with the authorities in Scotland to try and understand exactly what happened."

At the Good Shepherd home in Bishopton, Renfrewshire, residents were receiving counselling yesterday. The centre is a registered charity with close links to the Catholic Church that provides much-needed care for troubled teenage girls. But the recent history of the home itself has also been a troubled one.

In February this year, the former convent, which accommodates nine live-in residents and 21 day girls from local foster or care homes, faced possible closure because of a lack of funding. The cash crisis came months after police were called in to investigate lurid newspaper allegations of abuse and claims from ex-pupils over the existence of a so-called punishment room – although no evidence of wrongdoing was ever uncovered.

For the locals in Bishopton, it is not uncommon for girls from the centre to be seen out in the village. Though there is secure accommodation within the unit they are allowed out with the approval of their carers. According to one businessman, staff were called out only that weekend to collect one drunken youngster with visible scars on her wrists who had been spotted in distress outside the village shops.

Local MP Jim Sheridan praised the Good Shepherd yesterday, but called for an inquiry to establish how the girls managed to leave the unit undetected. First Minister Alex Salmond said questions would be asked. "Proper inquiries will be taking place into what happened, why it happened, could anything have been done to prevent it, and are there lessons to be learnt?"

What provision is there for teenagers at risk?

* In 2008 there were 59,500 children living in care in England, the biggest proportion of which (24,900) were between the ages of 10 and 15.

* 42,300 were placed into care with foster parents – the rest, including 3,500 unaccompanied asylum-seekers, are usually accommodated in specialist young person's units.

* In Scotland, 14,000 minors are classified as "looked-after children", the equivalent of one in every 100.

* 41 per cent of those in care are looked after in foster homes or in a residential or secure setting, such as a young person's unit.

* These units differ between local authorities. Some are run by the state, but others are run privately and rely on government funding, which is often hard to come by. Georgia Rowe was living in Scotland because the secure unit in her home city of Hull had been shut down.

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