Barrett Centre: Inquiry's findings bring more grief to mothers of three dead teenagers.

By Kathy McLeish

It’s almost two years since Justine Wilkinson’s daughter, Caitlin Wilkinson Whiticker, took her own life at their home.

Caitlin, 18, had battled severe and complex mental illness for most of her teens and had been a patient at the Barrett Centre, Queensland’s only long-term residential facility for adolescents with extreme mental illness.

“They have to have hope, that’s what keeps them going and for all its faults that’s what Barrett gave them,” Ms Wilkinson said.

“They went to Barrett and when they were a suicide threat, they were actually monitored 24-hours a day, always in contact with one staff member that was dedicated to them, so it was really intensive treatment.”

‘It was just too much pain.’

An inquiry heard a plan to replace the ageing Barrett Centre facility was scrapped under Queensland’s former LNP government and the facility was subsequently shut down in January 2014.

Within eight months, Ms Wilkinson Whiticker was dead.

“She’d just reached a point where she really just didn’t want to go on any longer. It was just too much pain,” Ms Wilkinson told 7.30.

“So we lost her.”

But Ms Wilkinson Whiticker was not the only one.

The Barrett Centre was a life-saver for desperately ill teenagers and their families. For Nichole Pryde the centre was a last resort for her mentally unwell daughter, Talieha.

“I fought hard to get her to go into Barrett because I thought that was the last chance, the last chance I had of keeping her alive,” Ms Pryde said.

When the centre closed 17-year-old Talieha was moved to an adult unit.


“They told me they’d never dealt with a person this young with these mental illnesses that she had and she was only there eight weeks and she passed away,” Ms Pryde said.

When Jo Olliver’s 18-year-old son Will Fowell was admitted to the Barrett Centre, a year before it closed, she was “absolutely relieved”.

“I’d been running on stress for so long. It was just overwhelming that there is that help and support out there,” Ms Olliver said.

When the centre closed, Ms Olliver said her son was lost.

“He went from his lovely support at the Barrett with his teachers, the counsellors, the psychiatrist, the nursing staff, all the other kids, a whole lot of activities, being engaged and everything, to him being with strangers in a unit,” she said.

Will took his own life five months later.

Government experts warned of closure

An ABC investigation revealed there had been multiple warnings in the lead up to the closure.

The Government’s advice — obtained under Right to Information laws — showed its own experts had considered a tier-3 residential facility like Barrett was essential because:

  • “There is a small group of young people whose needs cannot be safely and effectively met through alternate service types”
  • Managing them in the community was “associated with complexities of risk to self and others”
  • One member of staff had warned they were “acutely aware of the risk of death or severe injury to the adolescents by their own hand if they are not cared for in a unit like Barrett”

When the Palasczcuk Government came to power it established an inquiry to investigate the closure and its impact on patients.

The inquiry heard from senior health bureaucrats who said the LNP government had ordered massive budget cuts and three months to find them. Among the cuts, the decision was made to scrap a plan to replace the Barrett Centre with a new residential facility.

The $16 million that had been allocated for that project was redirected.

Queensland Health had also said the Barrett Centre was an outdated model of care. The department promised adequate replacement services, but the inqury heard key services were delayed.


“It’s been devastating,” Ms Wilkinson said.

“Young people didn’t feature, they were bylines basically to the whole thing about saving money and efficient use of resources and KPI’s.”

The findings

Today, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk revealed the inquiry’s findings.

The report said:

Commissioner Margaret Wilson QC said an Expert Clinical Reference Group commissioned by Government had recommended: “a design-specific clinically staffed bed-based service was essential for adolescents requiting medium term care and rehabilitation”.

“That advice was not heeded,” she said.

Health Minister Cameron Dick said the findings had detailed major concerns.

“The report describes flawed, chaotic and uncoordinated decision-making by Government in an environment where no-one took responsibility for the decisions that were made,” he said.

The inquiry has also recommended the Government consider a new building to provide bed-based mental health services to young people.

Ms Palaszczuk said the Government has allocated $22 million for the new centre.

“We will work with the families of the patients and consult with them extensively on the new facility,” she said.

But the commissioner found overall individual patient transition arrangements at the closure were adequate.

“I think they were doing as best they possibly could under circumstances,” the Premier said.

The coroner will now consider the report.

The Opposition said the funds expended on the inquiry would have been better spent on youth mental health.

‘I don’t know how it was adequate’

The parents say their quest for answers is not over yet.

They will now apply for the details from a second, confidential volume of the report, to understand the findings on individual transition arrangements.


“Talieha was transitioned out and she only survived for another 10 weeks and then she was gone, so I don’t know how it was adequate,” Ms Pryde said.

Ms Olliver said she still had serious concerns about the arrangements for her son Will.

“It wasn’t adequate at all, not at all,” she said.

The family’s lawyer, Lisa Flynn, said the families are trying to look forward.

“What’s really important now is that the Government acts without delay to implement those recommendations, however the recommendations don’t change the fact that families have been absolutely devastated by the mismanagement of care which surrounded the closure of the Barrett Centre,” she said.

The Public Service Commissioner will advise whether action should be taken against any individuals and the external reviews that have been recommended will be shared with other states in an effort to improve youth mental health, nationwide.

The parents who fought for the inquiry say that is one of the goals they had, but right now it still seems not quite enough.

“I’m happy that they might be moving forward and helping other children and other families, so they don’t have to go through what I went through,” Ms Pryde said.

“I’m grateful that they’re moving forward but I won’t be moving forward.”

Ms Wilkinson is more hopeful for the future. She said she cannot afford to look back.

“It’s just so pointless and that’s what really destroys me. I feel so incredibly desolate all the time and so devastated that I’ve lost my daughter for such a stupid, stupid reason as saving money and someone’s agenda.”

Recommendations from inquiry

  • Consider building new youth mental health service, including bed-based services
  • Review laws that established the devolved Hospital and Health Service model in Queensland Health
  • Improve transitions for adolescents moving into adult mental health services
  • Improve service agreements Queensland Health uses to contract services provided by non-government organisations
  • Improve the availability and use of evaluations to inform clinical interventions in mental health

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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