School and health services 'knew Erin Gallagher (13) was bullied on controversial social media site before her death' - inquest
School authorities and mental health services knew a 13-year-old girl was being bullied on a controversial social media site in the weeks before her death, an inquest heard today.
Erin Gallagher took her own life on October 27, 2012 at her home in Ballybofey, Co Donegal.
Her sister Shannon, (15), took her own life 45 days later.
At the inquest into Erin’s death at the Mount Errigal Hotel in Letterkenny today, gardaí revealed that social media site ask.fm had cooperated fully with their investigations and had handed over 258 messages left on Erin’s account.
The girl’s mother Lorraine told Coroner Dr Denis McCauley that on the day of her daughter’s death – a Saturday - she was working at McElhinney’s Department store in the town.
She said Erin and her son Sean James were at home and had called to the shop to have lunch with her.
Ms Gallagher said Erin and her son had been laughing and joking with her and had stayed until about 3pm before walking to their home on the Silverwood estate.
When she returned home just after 6pm, she noticed the house was in darkness except for a light coming from the TV.
As she walked into the hallway she saw her son sitting beside Erin.
“Sean James said to me ‘it’s ok, Erin’s just sleeping mummy’.
“I realised something was wrong; that Erin had [taken her own life],” said Lorraine Gallagher.
She said she had grabbed her son and taken him to a neighbour’s house and began screaming for help.
Two local men – Kevin McGlinchey and Dan Deery – had heard the screams.
Both had attempted to resuscitate Erin but she was pronounced dead a short time later by Dr James McDaid.
Det Garda Tom Ward said he launched an investigation into the death and ask.fm – which allows people to post anonymously online - had co-operated with a DPP request and gave full access to Erin’s account.
He said gardaí interviewed a number of young people as a result of checking 258 messages.
However the detective said a bid to secure IP addresses had failed as internet service providers had deleted the data.
He said a file on the case had been sent to the DPP and in June 2014 the DPP had recommended no prosecutions in the cases.
In his evidence to the inquests, the principal of Finn Valley College Alan Thompson – appointed almost a year after Erin’s death – said the school had become aware of online bullying on September 10, seven week’s before the girl’s death.
He said there had been a ‘commotion’ in the school and seven students including Erin were interviewed.
Mr Thompson said the row had begun over a boyfriend but there may have been other factors involved.
It became clear that there had been a fall-out during the summer and Erin had complained about comments left on Ask.fm.
“This had left her feeling upset,” said Mr Thompson, who said the school had reinforced its message to pupils of hurtful and dangerous consequences of anonymous websites.
He said another incident followed a few days later when there was a confrontation between an adult sibling of one student and Erin and Shannon outside school.
On October 5 there was an altercation in a café at lunchtime and an incident followed in the school toilets.
Erin and two other girls were suspended from school for three days.
On October 23, four days before Erin’s death, Shannon attempted to take her own life, said Mr Thompson.
Dr Don McDwyer, child psychologist with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), told the hearing that they had been told of a previous attempt by Erin to take her own life at Finn Valley College on September 21.
Barrister for the Donegal Education and Training Board (DETB) told Dr McCauley that they had been unaware of this incident until today’s inquest.
However Dr McDwyer said Erin had been referred to his team by her GP on September 24.
On October 5, he said, Erin was assessed and her main complaint was about bullying on social media.
She was given coping strategies and they did not believe Erin had any intention to self-harm at that stage.
Erin had been due to have a review on November 1.
Dr McDwyer said attacks on young people online can be “sudden and devastating”.
He told the inquests: “Victims can feel overwhelmed and isolated and their self-esteem is undermined.
“The consequences can be devastating and a young person can go to pieces very quickly.”
Returning a verdict of suicide, Dr McCauley said that while everyone could empathise with Lorraine Gallagher “very few will understand the real pain of losing a child like this”.
Dr McCauley said the “real” suicide rate in Co Donegal was twice the recorded figures.
“We have a real blight here in Donegal. Excluding Inishowen I have dealt with 16 cases of suicide over the past years,” he said.
“There is some great work going on to prevent suicide and if that work saves just one life it is worth doing.”
Patsy Gallagher, solicitor for Lorraine, said his client was keen that other deaths should be prevented.
“Lorraine wants the message to go out today to children across Ireland – and Erin was a child – that there is help out there for them, there are people who are willing to listen,” he said.
The Donegal ETB has issued a local helpline number for anyone affected by suicide. It is 074 91 31684.
If you have been affected by this article, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.org