300 to give evidence on care home girls’ bridge suicides

Hundreds of witnesses will be called to give evidence at a fatal accident inquiry into the deaths of two teenage girls who jumped from the Erskine Bridge.

It is hoped the investigation into the suicides of Niamh Bysouth, 15, and Georgia May Rowe, 14, will be concluded before the second anniversary of the tragedy next year.

The teenagers were residents at the Good Shepherd Centre in Bishopton, Renfrewshire, when they leapt hand-in-hand into the River Clyde on the night of October 4, 2009.

At a preliminary hearing in Paisley Sheriff Court yesterday, Sheriff Ruth Anderson QC was told that of a total of 417 witnesses, more than 300 will be called to give evidence.

However, doubt was expressed that Sandy Cunningham, the head of Good Shepherd Centre’s open unit at the time of the girls’ deaths, would be called to appear before the court.

Sheriff Anderson said a decision regarding Mr Cunningham, who now works for Glasgow City Council, should be made before a second preliminary hearing to be held on February 23.

A third preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 11, with the inquiry to begin on June 15.

It will run until July 29, with a break for most of August, then resuming on the 29th of that month and continuing until September 13.

The sheriff stressed that she hoped to conclude the inquiry and issue findings before the second anniversary of the deaths “if at all possible”.

John Watt, area fiscal for North Strathclyde, also expressed concern that, due to her fragile state, Georgia’s mother Mandy Oliver, also known as Terrie Faye Oliver, has not been made aware she is entitled to representation at the inquiry.

Ms Oliver, who lives in Hull, was said to have a “chaotic lifestyle” and can only be contacted through a care worker at a night shelter in the city.

Sheriff Anderson said she would prefer Ms Oliver be made aware of the inquiry, if at all possible.

It was also requested that Tanya Oliver, Georgia’s aunt, who had cared for the teenager and her two older siblings since they were young children, be allowed representation.

Niamh, also known as Niamh Lafferty, was in the care of Argyll and Bute Council at the time of her death while Georgia was in the care of Hull City Council.

Both local authorities will be represented at the inquiry. A lawyer for the Care Commission said it was unclear whether the service, which is to be replaced on April 1 next year by Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland, will be represented.

Niamh, from Helensburgh, and Georgia, from Hull, were both in care at the open wing of the Good Shepherd Centre, which also has a secure unit, at the time of their deaths.

The building has subsequently closed and is due for demolition early next year but Sheriff Anderson may decide on a site visit to view the property before that happens.

The inquiry will examine any defects in the working system that was in place at the time and consider whether any steps could reasonably have been taken to prevent the girls’ deaths.

A spokesman for the Good Shepherd Centre, run by the Cora Foundation, said at the time of Niamh and Georgia’s deaths the girls had appeared happy after having had weekend outings with relatives.

They had been living in the residential unit for troubled teenage girls for two months and were last seen heading to their rooms dressed in pyjamas.

Staff believed they were watching TV together but discovered they had disappeared during a routine check of residents.

A search of the campus and vicinity was carried out before police alerted the centre to an operation on the Erskine Bridge, a suicide blackspot three-and-a-half miles away.

The two girls were pulled from the water, one at around 9.40pm and the other at 10.15pm, and taken by military aircraft to the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, but were pronounced dead on arrival.

Since the bridge opened in 1971, only a handful of people have survived plunging from the car deck, 125 feet above the river.