News Irish News

Saturday 24 February 2018

All the warning signs were there but the system still failed Devlin

He had been in care, so why was a 14-year-old allowed to sleep rough before taking his own life? asks Philip Ryan

CASTLEDERMOT is a small rural village in Co Kildare that was forgotten by the Celtic Tiger. It is less than an hour outside Dublin but there are no sprawling ghost estates or half-built shopping centres.

When the M9 motorway was constructed there was no need for traffic to pass through the once-busy village. There is a takeaway, a couple of pubs and petrol stations either side of the stretch of the N9 that briefly passes through the small community.

It was in one of these garages, Behan's Service Station, that Katie and Lisa Morgan found a then 13-year-old Devlin Kavanagh sheltering from the cold for the night.

The girls could not believe the youngster was planning to bunk down for the night in a bathroom stall less than a mile from the family home where he lived with his mother, Orla and stepfather, Mark Doyle.

They rang their mother, Mary Magnapera, and asked could Devlin sleep on their couch rather than brave the elements. The mother of six, who had given shelter to many youngsters in her three-bedroom council house over the years, took pity on Devlin and agreed.

According to the report of the Ombudsman for Children (OCO) into his tragic death, Devlin had spent many nights living rough on the streets of Castledermot -- a town with a population of less than 900. The popular local boy would occasionally stay the night in the homes of various friends in the community.

He befriended older teenagers, as do many youngsters in rural towns, and also began smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol, according the OCO report.

However, those who knew the towering young man, who was 6ft 2in when aged just 14, are quick to play down allegations of serious drug abuse. During this time he would return to the detached bungalow where his family lived when 'he pleased', if at all, according to his mother. He stopped answering his phone to his mother and she was forced to search the streets of the small town for her son.

Circumstances prevented him from attending the local secondary school, leaving him without an education during what should be the formative years of a young adult's life. Dr Geoffrey Shannon said: "The exclusion of children from school is a major trigger for deterioration in their life experiences and it really provokes a downward spiral that is irreversible."

Devlin's life did quickly spiral out of control. The OCO and the Garda Ombudsman's investigation into his death both reported that Devlin was sexually assaulted by a woman in her 20s in the months before his death.

In February 2006, less than a year before he tragically took his own life, Devlin's friends rescued him from an attempted suicide on the grounds of a local church. How many more warning signs were needed?

The events that led to a 14-year-old boy from a middle-class family succumbing to a fate most would envisage happening to child from the slums of Calcutta are unclear.

Devlin was one of the 196 children who Dr Shannon and Norah Gibbons said were failed by the State in The Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group (ICDRG) launched last Wednesday.

After a brief relationship with his biological father, a then 24-year-old Orla gave birth to Devlin on January 26, 1992. They lived with her parents, PJ and Marietta Kavanagh in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, before renting their own place in the town when Devlin was three.

Always the independent woman, Orla worked two jobs to make sure her son never wanted for anything.

It was not until the turn of the millennium that she would meet her future husband, after her cousin convinced her to stop for a quick drink in Castledermot before bringing their children home from the cinema.

Mark was sitting at the bar drinking pints with pals when seven-year-old Devlin approached the group asking did they own a five pound note he found on the floor. "We said just keep it, Jesus you would want to see him, he was chuffed," Mark said.

Mark and Orla were married in September 2001 and wedding pictures from the day could not show a happier family. A nine-year-old Devlin smiles brightly, draping his jacket over his shoulder to mimic Mark's pose as they stand either side of Orla in the wedding pictures. They moved to Castledermot, and Devlin settled into the local primary school where he was a good student but did receive learning support.

The young family decided to leave their rural lifestyle for the bright lights of New York in 2003. But sadly, Orla had a miscarriage while in America and they decided to come home.

They returned to Castledermot in 2004 but this time they enrolled Devlin in a school in Baltinglass for his sixth year at primary level. Orla said her son enjoyed school but missed 24 days because he was been bullied. "He was big but he was a softy," she said.

During the summer of 2005, while Orla was heavily pregnant with her second son Luke, Devlin's behaviour began to change. "He didn't want to come home and he wouldn't answer his phone or he'd turn it off. If you told him he can't go out, he'd just walk out," she said.

The ICDRG report stated: "The family were very concerned that he had befriended ... individuals who were considerably older than him and was abusing alcohol, staying out at night and not attending school."

Girlfriend Stephanie Geraghty said Devlin was just like any other teenager and dismissed allegations that drugs were a major part of his life.

"He was into being around his friends, he was into being happy and that was him. He was like a normal 14-year-old kid, he was no different than anyone else and drugs were not a big part of his life."

Another of his peers Joe O'Doherty also said: "He was a nice young fella and everybody had a good time for him."

Devlin's erratic behaviour began to cause more problems at home during that summer. Orla said: "He was very close to Mark but then there was a conflict because Mark was trying to do it the hard way, you know be tough. Then communications did break down; Mark wouldn't deny that and I certainly wouldn't either."

Mark said: "This is what would have caused tension between myself and Orla. Orla was dealing with Devlin very compassionately, calmly talking to him. I suppose I was trying to be a bit firmer with Devlin and Orla didn't want me to be too firm. But either didn't worked to be honest with you."

Devlin was suspended from Knockbegg College in Carlow soon after he enrolled that year, and he was told he could not attend Colaiste Lorcain in Castledermot because it was full to capacity.

It was around this time, with Orla just about to give birth to Luke, that Mark asked social welfare services to intervene. Devlin was soon referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAHMS) in the hope he would get help for behaviour the ICDRG report said "was putting him at extreme risk".

He was assigned a social worker, and respite care and parenting support was put in place for Mark and Orla. The OCO report states that social services were involved in 10 meetings and 18 telephone calls with Devlin and his family between October 2005 and January 2006. The report then simply states: "The situation deteriorated."

At this stage, Devlin was refusing every effort offered by both his family and social services to help him regain some structure in his life.

In February 2006, he attempted to take his own life outside on the grounds of St James' Church in Castledermot, and if it was not for the intervention of his friends he might have been successful.

The Garda Ombudsman's report stated that Devlin had not been staying at his mother's home for some time and he was living "apparently on an ad-hoc basis, with certain other families in the district".

Mrs Magnapera's home was one of the places he was staying, but the 53-year-old mother claims it was on more than an 'ad hoc basis'.

She said: "We put down a rule that you had to be in at a certain time and I said if I see you taking drugs I'll never have anything do with you. It took him a while but he settled into it."

Mrs Magnapera came from a large family and swore she would never see a child need for anything.

With Devlin's continual reluctance to engage with the social services or even his own family, it was decided that a care order should be sought to place him in a secure unit for some time.

In May 2006, Devlin began a four-month stay in Ballydowd Special Care Unit in Lucan, Co Dublin -- a facility that has been the subject of a number Health and Information Quality Authority reports.

His mother said: "It was terrible for Devlin and me, to think that you have to sign your son into that.

"I knew nothing about that world and Devlin didn't either. But he wasn't safe, he was everywhere and that's why I plead with him to get him back to safety."

After his stay in Ballydowd, Devlin absconded from a step-down clinic in Edenderry, Co Offaly, and made his way across the countryback to Mrs Magnapera's house.

The OCO report said he was staying with a woman who "was not approved by the HSE".

Mrs Magnapera said she was in constant contact with Devlin's social worker during this period. "I haven't got a fostering licence, I have nothing, but the kids I did take in I looked after them.

"His social worker was a great girl, she was young but she was absolutely brilliant with Devlin. She used to come in here and say: 'Devlin you have changed so much, you look so lovely'."

There was hope of reconciliation with his family in September and they thought they had made a breakthrough.

It only lasted a couple of days and Devlin was back on the streets or possibly back in Mrs Magnapera's house. But most worryingly for Orla, he was out of her reach. In November, an allegation that Devlin was sexually abused by a woman in her mid-20s was made to the HSE and the gardai.

Mrs Magnapera said she alerted the HSE after Devlin confided in her but Orla did not find out until five weeks later.

Devlin attended a meeting with social workers to discuss the alleged abuse in November, according to the OCO report.

However, the OCO along with the ICDRG, are highly critical of social services because Orla had not been asked to attend this meeting.

Mrs Magnapera said Devlin was looking forward to Christmas and he had helped put up decorations in her house. "It was coming up to Christmas, Devlin was after putting up the tree, we had all the presents laid out, he bought a tracksuit for his little brother and runners for Smiley (Stephanie Geraghty)," she said.

"He wasn't in trouble, he wasn't in bother, he wasn't on the streets, he hadn't been arrested and he hadn't come to the attention of the gardai, nothing."

On December 1, a High Court order was made to place Devlin back into the Ballydowd care unit. The ICDRG report notes that he became "agitated when he was advised of this" over the phone by his social worker.

Devlin could not be consoled and when he heard of the order and he went missing for four days.

Frantic calls were made to reach him by his mother, the Magnapera family and by his social worker.

After spending the weekend taking ecstasy at a house party in another county, Devlin returned to his family home to plead with his mother not to send him back to the care unit.

Looking thin and pale after a weekend bingeing on drink and drugs, an emotional Devlin grabbed the keys to Orla's car and sped off.

He rang Orla from the car saying: "I can't live like this any more. I don't deserve to go back to Ballydowd."

She rang gardai just after 11pm to inform them of what had happened, but she feels she did not get an adequate response. After driving off the road into a field in Ballyroe at around 1am, Devlin called into a local house and asked to use their phone.

"He called his mother and pleaded with her to come and collect him in his stepfather's jeep. Orla told Devlin she could not come and get him -- something she said she will have to live with for the rest of her life.

Orla said: "The reason I didn't go is because every night I did go, it was the only night I didn't go, I would get him to safety and then it would be the same thing the next day."

She says she called the gardai immediately after she spoke with Devlin but the Garda Ombudsman's report claims there is no record of this call and gardai interviewed claim to have 'no recollection' of the call.

Devlin was found in the early hours of December 5, 2006, hanging from a tree a few two kilometres from where his car was found.

His friend Joe puts it simply: "He didn't want to be in care. What 14-year-old would want to be in care? They want to be with their friends, they don't want to be in some centre up in Dublin."

Another friend, Cahill O'Brien, said: "I don't know what was going wrong with him in the months leading up to it. I never noticed anything and I didn't see it coming."

Mark and Orla have tried tirelessly to get answers about their beloved Devlin's death from the HSE and the gardai.

Orla said: "It's not going to bring Devlin back but he deserves justice.

"That's what I always said, Devlin deserves that.

"He was deprived of an education and failed by the whole system. He had everything to live for."

Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News