A MOTHER’S six-year fight for justice was rewarded yesterday when a jury returned a damning verdict on practices at a County Durham secure unit for damaged children.
The jury of four men and five women ruled that unlawful use of force by four members of staff at Hassockfield Secure Training Centre near Medomsley, Consett, contributed to the decision by Adam Rickwood to take his own life.
After the inquest, his tearful mother Carol Pounder said: “I have waited over six years for truth and justice. Nothing can bring Adam back. All I have ever wanted is to find out the truth about what happened to my son and for those responsible for unlawful assaults to be held to account.
“I would have been prosecuted if I had manhandled my child the way those staff manhandled him.”
At just 14 Adam was the youngest person to die in custody in recent times.
A catalogue of “systematic failures from an unlawful regime ” was revealed during the two-week plus hearing.
Staff routinely used physical restraint on children in their care, apparently unaware that such use for non-compliance of an instruction was unlawful.
Although the practice was recorded more than 900 times in just one year leading up to Adam’s death, Youth Training Board monitors present at Hassockfield failed to report it.
And members of staff – many of whom had received no more than a basic nine-week training – were not told that Adam, an “intrinsically troubled and vulnerable” child – had suicidal tendencies and a prediliction for self harm when angry.
The jury also decided that the decision to place Adam in a secure unit 150 miles from his home in Burnley, Lanchashire, had “more than a minimal” contribution on the tragic teenager’s decision to take his own life.
Events leading up to the tragedy, on August 8, 2004 when Adam had been in custody for four weeks, began innocuously enough with some typical adolescent behaviour, the hearing was told. Another inmate began directing sexual innuendoes at Claire Murray, a staff member with just a few weeks’ experience at Hassockfield.
He was sent to his room but passed a piece of cardboard with an insulting message aimed at Ms Murray under his door to Adam and another boy, who began passing it between themselves while Miss Murray tried to grab it.
Instead of defusing the situation Ms Murray claimed she felt “intimidated” and radioed for back-up.
Four of her male colleagues, Steve Hodgson, Ian Gardner, Stewart Clark and Darren Lowerson soon appeared.
They lifted up eight-stone Adam – previously regarded as a “model trainee” – by his arms and legs and carried him face down to his room.
On the way Mr Hodgson, now a County Durham firefighter, used the controversial nose distraction technique – a sharp painful blow – to stop the boy trying to bite him, the inquest heard.
Adam’s nose bled afterwards and he was left alone in his room to calm down.
The teenager spoke to members of staff and he did not seem too despondent afterwards, but six hours later he was found dead in his room.
The jury concluded there had been a serious system failure at the centre which led to an unlawful regime. The panel also criticised training.
Summing up, assistant deputy coroner Jeremy Freedman said the jury should consider whether the restraint technique and the blow to his nose might have led to Adam’s death.
He said: “Adam was a deeply troubled and disturbed 14-year-old boy who had a history of drug abuse, self-harm, suicidal thinking and feelings of hopelessness.
“You know this was his first time in custody, his first time in a secure establishment where he was locked in at night.
“You also know he was very attached to his home and his family.”
After just over one hour the jury returned to unanimously condemn the running of the centre as “an unlawful regime” with a “serious system failure in relation to the use of physical control in care” both before and at the time of Adam’s death.
The decision overturned a verdict by a previous inquest jury, which did not hear details of the violence and ruled simply that Adam took his own life. It was welcomed by Adam’s family and by campaigners.
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Call for change
THE campaign group Inquest last night demanded "prompt and meaningful changes" to youth custody and accused successive governments of betraying thousands of teenagers to similar unlawful restraint in custody.
The jury’s narrative verdict at the hearing at Easington also criticised the Youth Justice Board. It followed 10 days of evidence about illegal discipline and breaches of Home Office rules.
Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, said the ruling vindicated the fight by Adam’s family to discover the truth about what happened to him.
"The public scrutiny finally afforded by this properly conducted inquest into Adam’s tragic death has highlighted serious failings in the way the state treats children in conflict with the law," she said.
Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said, "This secure training centre was run by a private company which locks up children for profit. There has to be some accountability when a child dies in the care of a private company. We would like the DPP to consider whether there is a case for instituting corporate manslaughter charges against Serco."
Maggie Atkinson, children’s commissioner for England, welcomed the judgment.
She said: "We recognise that members of staff in the secure estate can work with some of the country’s most troubled children. But physical force should only ever be used as a measure of last resort."
A spokesman for Hassockfield STC said: "Our thoughts are with his family and all those affected by his death, including those who helped, taught and cared for him. We have fully supported all investigations into what happened and we accept the verdict. As the inquest heard, since Adam’s death in 2004 major changes have been made nationally to the way in which troubled and challenging young people in the criminal justice system are cared for in secure training centres."
Campaign forced second inquest
ADAM’s mother Carol Pounder and his grandmother Margaret Rickwood listened intently throughout the two-week hearing.
It was Mrs Pounder’s campaigning which forced a second inquest into her son’s death.
At a previous inquest at Chester-le-Street in 2008, a jury found that Adam had deliberately taken his own life.
But his mother took the case to the High Court because the County Durham coroner Andrew Tweddle had refused to rule on the legality of physical restraint methods used on Adam hours before his death.
In a Court ruling two years ago, Mr Justice Blake said the force used on Adam was clearly unlawful. The judge ordered the fresh inquest, which was presided over by Her Majesty’s assistant deputy coroner Jeremy Freedman.