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Three years on and still the mother of West Norfolk teen Lydia Stafford is fighting for justice

PUBLISHED: 10:34 27 February 2016 | UPDATED: 09:05 28 February 2016

West Anglia College student Lydia Stafford, who died aged 19

West Anglia College student Lydia Stafford, who died aged 19

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It is nearly three years since Norfolk student Lydia Stafford was found dead at the foot of Hunstanton cliffs. Today, her mum speaks in public about the tragedy and her ongoing fight for justice for the first time. Andrew Hirst reports.

Lydia Stafford, pictured far right, with her mother and elder siblings Lydia Stafford, pictured far right, with her mother and elder siblings

Lydia Stafford was “intelligent, loving and full of life”, with a promising future ahead of her.

The 19-year-old student had moved to Congham, west Norfolk, for a “fresh start” after a battle with anorexia, anxiety and depression.

Her mother, Deborah Stafford, said they were pleased to be moving to a “lovely part of the world” where they were expecting Lydia to receive treatment from the nearby eating disorder unit, to which she had been referred.

But less than a year later, on June 11, 2013, Lydia’s body was found at the foot of Hunstanton cliffs.

Lydia Stafford pictured on her 18th birthday with her mother Deborah Lydia Stafford pictured on her 18th birthday with her mother Deborah

“I was in complete and utter shock,” said Mrs Stafford.

“Lydia was so special and had so much to give.

“She was loving, caring and had always been so full of life.

“For her life to come to an end like that, words just cannot begin to describe the effect that it’s had on us.

“I can’t bear to think how she must have suffered and been misunderstood by the people who should have been caring for her.”

Mrs Stafford, 55, is currently taking legal action against the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT), which was responsible for Lydia’s mental health care at the time of her death.

It was around this time that the trust, faced with the need to save millions of pounds from its budget, went through a controversial restructure in which jobs were axed and some services scaled back. NSFT has since apologised to the family for the failings prior to Lydia’s death. It also claims to have made a number of “significant changes”, including the introduction of specialist youth team.

Mrs Stafford feels the trust underestimated the serious nature of her daughter’s ill health because of her intelligence and looks, and claims Lydia’s eating disorder was ignored, despite its major effect on her psychological wellbeing.

She says it is “ridiculous” that an 18-year-old’s care can change overnight from child to adult services, despite their ongoing immaturity, calling on all trusts to offer specialist services for young people aged 18-25.

Mrs Stafford claims her daughter’s move from child to adult services, meant Lydia received less attention and she, as her mother, was excluded from what was happening with her care.

Lydia had been receiving support for her illness since she was 14 and living in Leicestershire. Her illness had been so severe that it had led to attempts on her own life. At one point she spent six months at a specialist eating disorder unit in London.

Although her mother admits the illness was hard on her as a single parent, she says the care Lydia received from the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust’s children and adolescent mental health service was excellent.

“We couldn’t have expected more,” she said.

“As a family, we were fully involved with Lydia’s care, I couldn’t fault it.”

Mrs Stafford, who has worked as a doctor, said she had “massive faith” in the health service and every confidence her daughter’s care would continue at the same high standard when the family moved to Norfolk for a “fresh start”.

She says her former care providers had made referrals for the Norfolk Community Eating Disorder Unit in King’s Lynn, and assumed Lydia would be well looked after.

However, as Lydia’s weight was normal following her stay in London, she was withdrawn from treatment at the unit, which was run by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust. Instead she was taken on by the NSFT for adult psychiatric care.

Mrs Stafford said she was shocked by the change in approach and the apparent “postcode lottery” of health care standards.

Although Lydia continued to have regular appointments with a care co-ordinator, Mrs Stafford said these had become less regular. She said her own communication with the NSFT was almost nonexistent.

“They just seemed to want to push me out and I was never given the opportunity to speak to them,” she said,

“Mrs Stafford says her daughter’s care ignored the serious effect of her eating disorders and looked at her other conditions in isolation.

“We feel that they just completely underestimated how ill she was,” she said.

“She was a beautiful well-spoken girl and so they did not take her 
past history of mental ill health seriously.

“They just seemed to think of her as an angst ridden teenager, instead of a highly intelligent young woman with serious mental health issues.”

On the day of her death, Lydia, a student at the College of West Anglia, who was expected to be offered a place at Cambridge University, had just sat the second of two exams that week, and had been told the home visit she had been expecting from the crisis team had been cancelled and replaced with a two minute phone conversation.

She told her mother she was going to take the dog for a walk.

As soon as Mrs Stafford noticed the dog had been locked in the utility room, she was gripped with panic, and immediately called the NSFT’s crisis team and police.

Lydia, who was the youngest of Mrs Stafford’s three children, had been seen by a member of the public at the foot of the cliffs near Hunstanton lighthouse.

NSFT conducted a serious incident review but the family were not happy with its findings, and an independent review was later held by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The report has not been made public; however Mrs Stafford said it was a “thorough investigation”.

“I just didn’t want this to happen to someone else’s child or for anyone to have to suffer again like this,” Mrs Stafford said.

“I want to do anything I can to make these trusts sit up and listen.”

TRIBUTES

Lydia Stafford’s death prompted an outpouring of grief at the Norfolk college she attended.

Students and teachers at the College of West Anglia awards paid tribute to the 19-year-old during a ceremony at which she had been due to receive a social sciences prize.

A eulogy, read out at the ceremony said: “Tonight we remember Lydia Stafford as an exemplary student both in her outstanding academic achievements and as a warm, giving individual who is sorely missed by her friends and staff.

“In a short period of time while studying with us, Lydia attained remarkable standards. She won awards and commendations both within college and from external organisations for her work.

“Above all Lydia was a caring person who would be so proud of the achievements of her peers if she were here tonight.

“Lydia has left a big gap in the lives of her many friends and teachers and she will always be remembered for her quiet, calm and sincere personality as well as her academic prowess.”

TRUST’S RESPONSE

Deborah White, director of operations (Norfolk and Waveney), at the NSFT said: “Since Ms Stafford’s death in 2013, our trust has made a number of significant changes to our child and adolescent mental health services in Norfolk and Waveney, including introducing a dedicated mental health youth team for young people aged 14 to 25 years old.

“We have apologised to Ms Stafford’s family for the failings in our care and acted on a number of recommendations that were highlighted during our investigation into the circumstances leading up to her death.

“These included undertaking a thorough review of our community services, ensuring a carer is fully involved in the care plan of a patient, and introducing the enhanced DICES risk assessment training model so our clinical staff can more effectively evaluate any risk.”

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