We will have blood on our hands if at-risk girl attempts suicide, Munby says

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Aug 04, 2017
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Sir James Munby said he was ashamed that he could not do more for the teenager

Chris Harris for The Times

The country’s senior family judge has said that he and the state “will have blood on our hands” if a teenage girl who is deemed a suicide risk cannot be found a hospital bed within days.

In an almost unprecedented expression of emotional opinion yesterday, Sir James Munby, the president of the family division of the High Court, issued a dire warning regarding the health of the girl, referred to as X, who is about to be released from a secure unit. The judge said he felt powerless and a sense of “shame” and “embarrassment” that he could not do more for the girl, who has made several attempts at suicide.

“If, when in eleven days’ time she is released from ZX [a secure unit],” the judge told a Manchester sitting of the court, “we, the system, society, the state, are unable to provide X with the supportive and safe placement she so desperately needs, and if, in consequence, she is enabled to make another attempt on her life, then I can only say, with bleak emphasis: we will have blood on our hands.”

The teenager is being held in a secure unit after a conviction in the youth court. She was scheduled for release later this month and the judge pointed out that he has no power to place her under a care order because she is too old. It is also understood that staff at the secure unit have said that they are not adequately equipped to care for X.

In June Sir James ordered that a plan be drafted for X’s care and it was determined that she did not meet the threshold for a medium secure unit on the ground that she presented a risk to herself rather than others. She would qualify for a place in a low secure unit, but there are insufficient beds at those facilities.

Sir James said: “If this is the best we can do for X, and others in similar crisis what right do we, what right do the system, our society and indeed the state itself, have to call ourselves civilised?

“The honest answer to this question should make us all feel ashamed. For my own part, acutely conscious of my powerlessness – of my inability to do more for X – I feel shame and embarrassment; shame, as a human being, as a citizen and as an agent of the state, embarrassment as president of the family division, and, as such, head of family justice, that I can do no more for X.”

Sir James ordered that copies of his comment be sent to the chief executive of NHS England, to the health secretary, the home secretary and the lord chancellor.

After the judge’s comments, NHS England said that it had identified beds in three “appropriate” places and would take steps to ensure the correct care.

Mike Prentice, medical director for the NHS north region, said: “The judge is quite right that the relevant agencies need to ensure a safe, new care placement for this young woman, which is suitable given the great complexities of her situation. That’s now happening.”

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