'We went to the State for help. We were crying out for help, but it never arrived'

Wed, Jun 20, 2012, 01:00

IT’S DEVLIN Kavanagh’s Confirmation day, and he’s posing for a photograph in his school uniform. He’s just 13 years old. With his hand in his pockets, he looks a little stilted, the way people tend to in such photographs. His mother, Orla, and stepdad, Mark, are on either side of him, beaming proudly.

Just over a year and a half later, Devlin Kavanagh was dead. At 14, he had taken his own life.

His life had unravelled in the space of a chaotic few months. He was diagnosed with a learning disability and dropped out of school. Unable to find a new school, he started mixing with older kids who were known to gardaí, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

Within months, he was seen as just another troublemaker in the village of Castledermot, Co Kildare. As his life grew increasingly chaotic, he was eventually admitted into the care of the Health Service Executive.

After spending a few months at Ballydowd – a secure facility for troubled teens – he was quickly back in a rough-and-tumble world, with little structure or support.

His story is complex and there aren’t easy answers. Social services did respond. But his parents feel their son was failed by the system when he needed it most. “Lots of teenagers go through rough patches,” says Orla Kavanagh.

“We went to the State looking for help, but we feel his case was never taken seriously. There was no real interest or accountability. We feel we’d have been better off if we went looking for help privately, which we were advised against at the start . . . Now, all we’re left with are these unanswered questions.”

DEVLIN’S MOTHER remembers him as a bright, happy child. She was in her mid-20s when he was born. As a single mother, she reared him at home until he was three and, later, with the support of her family.

“He was great fun and loved the outdoors. He loved people and was well-mannered. He had some difficulties with reading and received learning support, but he never had any behaviour problems,” Orla recalls.

His first problems began the following year, during the summer of 2005. Devlin was 13 and about to enter secondary school.

“He was very tall for his age. Six foot, two inches,” his mother recalls. “He looked older than he was, but in reality he was very vulnerable. He was a child. He was easily led and just didn’t see badness in anyone.”

He drifted away from friends his own age – who, along with Devlin, were due to attend Knockbeg College, a boarding school on the Carlow/Laois border – and fell in with a group of older boys who were involved in using drugs and in anti-social behaviour.

When he left to go to Knockbeg the following September, it didn’t work out. He was suspended after two weeks for mitching. He didn’t want to go back. When he applied to join a different secondary school locally, his parents were told it wasn’t possible.

“This was a very short space of time. This was a boy who, at the age of 11, still believed in Santy,” says his stepfather, Mark Doyle. “Now he was getting a reputation as a troublemaker.”

His life rapidly began to unravel. He was frozen out of the education system. His parents say they sought help from gardaí and educational welfare officers, without success.

“Straight away, he wasn’t part of society,” says Mark. “He was pushed aside. And suddenly, here are these older lads, acting like his best friend. Using him. So it was no surprise he latched on to that.”

SOON HE was disappearing from home, spending the night with friends, or calling home looking for a lift home in the early hours of the morning.

“Things had deteriorated so quickly that Devlin’s safety was my priority,” says Orla. “I was going around, day and night. Luke was in the back of the car. I’d get calls from him at two, three, four, even five in the morning.”

She went to the Health Service Executive’s social services in search of help.

Devlin was referred to child and adolescent mental health services in September 2005 and, later, to social services, on the basis that his behaviour was putting him at extreme risk.

There is no doubt they responded. His case files show evidence of dozens of meetings and appointments. However, the quality of the response would later be criticised in an investigation by the Ombudsman for Children. It found Devlin’s needs were never adequately assessed and he wasn’t placed in secure care long enough to address his problems.

“They only really responded when I was distraught and fearing for his life,” says Orla.

“Devlin told me on one occasion when passing the cemetery in Castledermot that he wanted to be buried in there. I reported all of this to them.”

As his life went into a downward spiral, his mother feared he was in danger.

“I just wanted him safe. I felt that if we got him into a safe setting once again, it would be a chance to ensure that he got the kind of support he needed.”

On December 1st, 2006, the HSE sought a care order to take Devlin back to a secure care facility, Ballydowd. However, gardaí failed to execute the order properly. In a report on the case, the Garda Ombudsman found it “surprising and disquieting” that responsibility for such a serious matter was not in the general knowledge of members on duty in the area.

It said one member of the force should be disciplined for failing to conduct an adequate search for the boy. By the time the ombudsman’s report was published, the garda had retired and could not be disciplined. No senior officer was censured. Devlin’s parents are deeply unhappy at what they see as a major lack of accountability.

The last time his parents saw their son was on the evening of December 5th. He was dropped off by an older person, they say, and looked thin and gaunt.

“I just hugged him,” said Orla. “I said, ‘Will we go back to Ballydowd? It’ll be a start.’ He said he’d ring them. I made a sandwich and a cup of coffee for him, and he went out with the house phone . . . when the phone rang, he was in the car. He’d taken the car and said, ‘I can’t live like this any more. I don’t deserve to go back to Ballydowd’.”

Later that night he took his own life. His body was found by a passer-by the next day in a laneway a few miles from home.

ORLA SAYS they are haunted by what might have been if they had sought help privately or made different decisions.

They acknowledge they may not have made all the right decisions, but insist his welfare was always their priority. “There is no perfect parent,” says Orla. “but we never neglected him, he was always number one, always . . . My only regret is we went to the State looking for help, instead of finding it privately ourselves.”

Devlin’s photographs, meanwhile, are everywhere in the family home near Castledermot.

“I think of him every minute of the day,” says Orla.

“His clothes are still in his bedroom drawers. I can’t touch them. The hardest thing is knowing Devlin didn’t want to die, but only to end his pain.”