The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has accused the UK Government of failing some of the most vulnerable children in society, after new figures revealed a rise in the number of children with learning disabilities who have been “locked away” in mental health hospitals.
A new report, titled ‘Far Less Than They Deserve’, found that too many children, including those with learning disabilities, are being detained in mental health institutions for too long and in extremely poor conditions when they could be at home with their families.
It also found that some children are being unneccesary sedated or physically restrained while detained in these institutions, and some have even been threatened with seclusion.
The news comes not long after a report found that hundreds of vulnerable and mentally ill children have been effectively “locked up by the state“, because councils lack sufficient funding to support them in their homes.
One girl told the Children’s Commissioner’s Office: “I don’t like being restrained … it’s not very good.
“I don’t like leg holds … When I said I don’t feel comfortable they let go. They didn’t immediately, but they did when I persuaded them.
“I don’t like when they restrain me in my room … when there’s more than 2 people in my room … I got restrained with an arm round my back … it strained my wrist and it felt numb and had lumps.”
According to the report, 250 children with a learning disability or autism were identified in a mental health hospital in England in February 2019, compared to 110 in March 2015.
Nearly three quarters of these children have autism but not a learning disability. Around 1 in 7 have a learning disability only, and another 1 in 7 have both.
NHS Data provided to the Children’s Commissioner’s Office by NHS Digital shows that on average, children with autism and/or a learning disability had spent 6 months trapped in their current hospital, and 8 months in inpatient care.
Worryingly, 1 in 7 children had spent at least a year in a mental health hospital or similar institution. The Children’s Commissioner says all of these children could have returned home if the right support was available.
A mother of a teenage girl in hospital told the Children’s Commissioner: “She’s been in for two years and she’s got to stay there until they find her a place.
“She doesn’t need to be in the hospital any more but she’s not allowed to come home.
“We would like her to be somewhere close to home that we can see her whenever we want and that she’ll be safe, where no one can take advantage of her.
“In crisis situations nobody should have to feel like nobody’s there for them. There’s no support in the community where people can go.”
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “There around 250 children with a learning disability and/or autism in England living in children’s mental health wards.
“They are some of the most vulnerable children of all, with very complex needs, growing up in institutions often far away from their family home. For many of them this is a frightening and overwhelming experience. For many of their families it is a nightmare.
“I will never forget the stories I heard, and the tears of frustration and anger, from mums and dads of these children at a meeting I arranged for them.
“Some of them have a child who has been locked away in a series of rooms for months. Others have to listen as they are told by institutions that their children have had to be restrained or forcibly injected with sedatives.
“They feel powerless and, frankly, at their wits end as to what to do.
“A national strategy is needed to address the values and culture of the wider system across the NHS, education and local government so that a failure to provide earlier help is unacceptable, and admission to hospital or a residential special school is no longer seen as almost inevitable for some children.
“There has been report after report and promise after promise to address this issue and yet the number of children in hospital remains stubbornly high.
“We know more about the lives of these children and the impact it is having on their families, than we did.
“The onus is now on Ministers, the NHS, the CQC, Ofsted and local authorities to make sure that these most vulnerable of children are not locked out of sight for years on end simply because the system is not designed to meet their needs.
“Hospital admission must always be in a child’s best interests and as part of a managed process, with clear timescales and a focus on keeping the length of stay as short as possible.
“This is clearly not happening at the moment and instead we have a system which is letting these children down.”