"Very drunk" 14-year-old girl was found dead after playing drinking game, inquest hears
A 14-year-old girl in foster care who was found hanging at a house party was "very drunk" having downed whisky and Disaronno in a drinking game, an inquest heard.
Sarah Clerkson, originally from Sunderland but staying with a County Durham family, went to sleep after she was sick and party-goers found her an hour later in the bedroom.
Her foster father Andrew Young told the hearing at Crook Civic Centre that she had settled in with the family well and they had told her their intention was to make the arrangement long-term.
Coroner Andrew Tweddle said the only conclusion was an "open one", as there was no indication she intended to kill herself at the party in Spennymoor in December 2013.
Detective Inspector Wendy Tinkler, who investigated the death, said Sarah told people at the party she was in care and that she wanted to stay over. They told her she should call her foster parents to say she was not coming home.
The detective said: "There was a drinking game which Sarah did take part in. It involved the loser having to drink an alcoholic drink and Sarah was described as having drunk quite a considerable amount of whisky and Disaronno."
Later that evening she was found to be "quite heavily intoxicated" and was sick in the landing.
She was helped to a bedroom by another party-goer and allowed to go to sleep. Just over an hour later the concerned young people found her in the bedroom. Attempts were made to revive her and an ambulance was called but she could not be saved.
Asked by the coroner about Sarah's drunkenness, Ms Tinkler replied: "From the accounts of the young people present, they described her as very drunk."
She agreed when Mr Tweddle said there was no indication of "unpleasantness" or bullying at the party, which he said was a "happy occasion where there has been lots of alcohol consumed".
Earlier, her foster father told the inquest Sarah had been living with them since the October.
Mr Young agreed when Mr Tweddle said: "It is clear... that Sarah had had quite a troubled time in the weeks, months and possibly years prior to coming to you."
She had a history of absconding from home before staying with the Youngs, but the foster father said he was only late home once, briefly, while staying with them. Their aim was to give her a stable, family life with routines, the inquest heard.
Mr Young said: "I thought she was getting better, I thought it was extremely positive."
He added: "She was really bubbly, polite and friendly."
But there were issues at school, he said. And, although she befriended a lot of children, there were "bad influences", Mr Young said.
She had been exposed to drink and drugs previously, the inquest heard, and Mr Young was aware of that.
"But she never displayed anything when she was with us," he said.
"We wanted her to do hobbies and activities and things that would take her mind off the bad situation she had been in in the past. We took her to college open days to see the possibilities if she stayed with us."
On the day she died, Mr Young said all communication with her foster family had been positive.
That night she went out with a female friend who took her to a party with around 12 teenagers aged 14-17, the inquest heard. She was expected to be home for 10pm.
Notepads and books she wrote in were examined after her death, and although she had mentioned self-harm in the past, there was no mention of suicide, Mr Tweddle said.
To give a conclusion of suicide, the coroner said he would have to be sure she intended to kill herself. He could not be certain, due to her drunkenness, her age and a lack of a note or other indicators.
"She might have done, but might is not enough," he said. "I do have reasonable doubt in my mind. Sarah is entitled to the benefit of that doubt, therefore I will not say that she committed suicide."
He added: "The appropriate conclusion is an open one."
Sarah's family were aware of the inquest but chose not to attend, Mr Tweddle said.
A review by Sunderland Safeguarding Children Board will be published in the coming weeks.
An inquest for Danielle Formosa, also 14 and from Sunderland and who knew Sarah, will be held before the same coroner on June 1. She was also in care and died at a County Durham children's home days after Sarah was found.