William was just 16 when he killed himself while on remand at Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution. His death – which took place within 48 hours of his arrival and after his vulnerability had been flagged up to the service – is a travesty. But then, William’s whole life was a travesty. Born into a troubled family, he was a “classic product” of the care system – a boy moved at least 19 times in his short existence; a boy who seemed fated to fall through the cracks.
An examination of William’s life from cradle to grave is a testament to the enduring impact of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and of the way dysfunctionality is handed down – like a terrible bequest – from generation to generation. It demonstrates the difficulty of breaking the cycle of poverty and the system’s inadequacy when it comes to saving our most damaged children.
Before ever William was born into a home blighted by domestic violence, drugs and poor mental health, his four (half and full) siblings had come to the attention of social services, and at one month old he was placed on the child protection register.
Between the ages of three and 16, he had spent time living with family members, foster parents, in children’s homes and secure units. In his mid teens he was a serial absconder who had attempted suicide on several occasions, taking valium and walking recklessly in the path of cars.
He had also been in trouble with the police, at one stage taking part in a mini-riot at the infamous Four Corners in Glasgow City Centre.
“There were concerns about him carrying a knife, but it was mostly for his own protection,” says one source who worked with him during that period. “His mental health was never good. He was more of a danger to himself than he was to other people.”
A forensic examination into William’s background reveals his problems ran generations-deep. His own mother, Christine, was brought up by her grandparents both of whom had died by the time she was 18.
In 2004, after repeated reports that Christine was not coping with her children, William was placed with a long-term foster carer. He stayed there until 2007, when he and his sister Chloe were sent to live with their paternal grandfather.
Within a year, that placement had broken down and he moved in with another foster family where he seemed to settle well; by now Christine was beginning to address her own problems and direct contact between the two had resumed.
In 2010, however, William began to display “challenging behaviours”. Two more sets of foster carers ended their placements because they could not deal with the risk he posed. On one occasion he simulated cutting the throats of the couple looking after him and threatened to kill himself. He was ten at the time.
And so – with a sort of bleak inevitability – William was moved into Balikinrain Residential School in Balfron in Stirlingshire. At Balikinrain, he would sometimes trash his room, break his belongings and tamper with electrical sockets.
But, poignantly, there is also this: at bedtime, when he struggled to settle, he would revert to childhood behaviours singing nursery rhymes and stroking his own hair until he fell asleep. He became close to one of his key workers, who then left abruptly – another blow to his self-esteem.
William was moved so many times over the next few years, it is impossible to record them all here. What is clear is that by the time he was 14, his mental health had degenerated to the point where he was acting up at school and attempting or threatening to end his own life.
And by the following year, he was getting drunk, using drugs and alcohol, constantly absconding from Airth Children’s Unit in Mosspark and beginning to get himself in trouble with the police.
The offences he allegedly committed around this time included shoplifting, obstruction, possession of a knife and breach of the peace. On one occasion, when detained for breach of the peace, he banged his head against the cell wall until he was taken to hospital.
This type of behaviour continued for the next two or three years; as a result he was placed in secure units on several occasions.
In the last few months of his life, William’s behaviour had been stabilising. He had moved in with his mother, whose own mental health had improved, and he was working part-time in a car wash.
Although he was still under a compulsory supervision order, and prone to low moods, his name had been removed from the Vulnerable Young Persons’ register. Bright, sociable and with a good sense of humour, he was active in his community and enjoyed skate boarding and cycling as well as computer games. It is not clear what caused William to walk into Saracen police station with a knife on 2 October. Those who know him best, however, believe it was a cry for help; a means of getting someone to act.
As a result, he was detained in the police station. Officers then contacted social work asking for him to be placed in secure, but there were no places.
He was then transferred to Stewart Street police station where he picked up two further charges of police assault and breach of the peace.
It is understood both the reporters and the social work department wanted him to be treated as a child in need of protection in accordance with best practice. That’s why they wanted him to be placed in a secure unit and kept within the children’s hearing system.
Had he been kept within the hearing system, there would have been other options, including the authorisation of secure care.
Instead he was remended to Polmont where he became the fourth young person within a year to kill himself. The circumstances of his death will be the subject of a Fatal Accident Inquiry, but that could take up to four years.
At his home in Possilpark, his mother Christine and sister Chloe are devastated. On her mantelpiece is a school photograph of her son, with his red hair combed and in his smart maroon blazer. Christine sobs as she says she is not ready yet to talk about his death. But while I’m there she makes it clear that – like the SCRA and the social work department – she believes his death was avoidable. She has written “Justice for William” on his Facebook page.
Her son was buried on 19 October. It was a well-attended funeral, with lots of young people, and his coffin was borne in a horse-drawn carriage.
In Lambhill Cemetery, at the recently filled lair, lie a series of colourful cards, including one marked “Son”.
They have been placed there by mourners in honour of his 17th birthday, which would have been the following day.
William was a son, brother, uncle, nephew, but he will never now be a father.The cards symbolise the opportunities William should have had, the adult life he should have lived. Their corners are furling in the autumn breeze; the words of sorrow they express are fading in the rain.