Children in care miss out on mental-health treatment, say MPs

06 May 2016

CHILDREN in care are being denied the mental-health treatment they need as they are shuttled between foster homes, MPs have warned.

Almost half of the children and young people in care have a diagnosable mental-health disorder, compared with about one in ten children who are not in care, a report from the House of Commons Education Select Committee says.

But, despite their needs, MPs found that vulnerable children are being turned away by mental-health services because they do not have a stable home, or they do not meet the high thresholds set to qualify for treatment.

The committee heard from a 16-year-old girl who had been waiting for more than two-and-a-half years for help from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). She had moved home 13 times during that period, and help would not be given until she had a stable placement.

No child should be refused help until a placement is permanent, or suffer any delay in access to help because of a move, MPs said. They recommended that children in care should be given priority.

The chairman of the committee, Neil Carmichael MP, said: “Local authorities have a special responsibility for the welfare of ‘looked-after’ children. In spite of this duty, it is clear that many ‘looked-after’ children in England are not getting the mental-health support they need. At present, CAMHS are not assessing or treating children in care because these children do not have a stable placement.

“Given [that] children in care may have unstable family lives, and are frequently moving foster or residential placement, this inflexibility puts vulnerable children in care at a serious disadvantage in getting the support they deserve. This must change. We recommend children in care be given priority access to mental-health assessments, and never refused care based on their placement or severity of their condition.”

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Currently, access to CAMHS stops at the age of 18, a cut-off point that the NSPCC has described as a “cliff edge in care”. The MPs’ report recommends that, because leaving the care system was a “time of significant upheaval and disruption” for young people, access should be extended to the age of 25.

Children leaving care are five times more likely to commit suicide than their peers, and more likely to enter the criminal-justice system, as well as suffering poorer health and educational outcomes.

Provision for mental-health services in many parts of England is “poor”, MPs say, and significant numbers of local authorities are failing to identify mental-health issues when children enter care. And, too often, schools are trying to help young people who have mental-health issues, but without adequate support.

Charities that work with children in care welcomed the report’s recommendations, and said that children were being failed because of Government funding cuts to mental-health services.

The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Matthew Reed, said that some of the most vulnerable young people in the country were being let down by “overstretched and underfunded” mental-health services.

“When children come into the care system, they are at their most vulnerable, and yet, as this report shows, their mental health and well-being is too often overlooked until they reach crisis point,” he said.

“There is a way forward, but urgent action is needed now. Children in care must be guaranteed access to specialist assessments and the support they need to help them overcome trauma or mental-health problems.”

The Government has promised to invest £1.4 billion in mental-health services for children and young people over the course of this Parliament.

In the year ending 31 March 2015, a total of 69,540 children were looked after by local authorities in England: a rate of 60 per 10,000 children under 18 years. The number of children looked after has increased by six per cent since 2011, Government statistics suggest.

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