Children in care are too often being denied access to mental health services - despite being four times more likely to have a diagnosable condition than their peers, MPs have warned.
Almost half of the children and young people in care have a diagnosable mental health disorder compared with around one in 10 children who are not.
Many fostered children in England are said to be missing out on treatment because they have been moved between foster placements so often.
A new report from the House of Commons Education Committee suggests a “significant number” of local authorities and health services are failing to identify mental health issues when children enter care, with some schools reportedly calling emergency services in severe cases as a last resort for help.
Charity groups say the lack of help accessible to disadvantaged children is “not acceptable” and called on the government to ensure greater monitoring of the emotional wellbeing of those in care.
Emma Smale, Co-Chair for the Alliance for Children in Care, said: “It is not acceptable that looked after children still struggle to access the mental health services and the support that they need. The impact of trauma like severe neglect or family breakdown is long lasting.
“Investment in monitoring outcomes is vital and we want to see the introduction of the measurement of children’s emotional wellbeing. This will help ensure that the system recognises the long lasting impact of traumatic experiences and help towards giving children in care the future they deserve.”
According to the report, children in care and care leavers are more likely to experience poor health, education and social outcomes. Young people leaving care in the UK are also five times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
The report detailed how some child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) were unwilling to begin treatment if a child moved into a new foster placement, even if the move was within the same local authority.
One 16 year-old girl in foster care told the Education Committee she had waited more than two and a half years to be seen by her local Camhs, because she had been moved placements 13 times. At the time of the inquiry, she was still waiting for an appointment despite having lived with her foster carer for 10 months.
Sarah Brennan, Chief Executive of Young Minds, a group partially involved in the study, said the mental wellbeing of those in care was too often ignored.
“These are the young people who too often go on to have the most severe and enduring mental health conditions throughout their lives,” she said.
“If they receive the right help early on, as all the evidence shows, much of this long-term distress for them, and their friends and families, could be avoided.”
The report advised that provisions for children in care with diagnosed problems were “poor” in many parts of the country.
At present, young people leaving care are only able to gain access to mental health services until the age of 18 – a withdrawal the NSPCC has described as a “cliff edge” in care.
Neil Carmichael, Chair of the Education Committee, said: “Local authorities have a special responsibility for the welfare of looked-after children. In spite of this duty, it’s 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 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.”
The committee has called for changes to the way in which children entering care are monitored, with more thorough initial assessments as well as greater mental health training for teachers, carers and mental health workers.
The report also recommends local authorities and health services worked together to provide mental health support up until the age of 25.
A Government spokesperson said: “Children in care have often lived through traumatic experiences and it is vital they receive the support they need. That’s why we are putting a record £1.4 billion into children and young people’s mental health, and investing in better links between these services and schools.
“This is backed up by £700m in reforming the social work profession, so staff are supported to make the right decisions for those in their care.”
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