Northern Ireland’s Children’s Commissioner has expressed ‘great concern’ at the lack of progress in mental health services for vulnerable children after figures revealed that up to 17 children in care have died in over the past five years.
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act also show that across Northern Ireland many other children in care have turned to drugs to cope with poor mental health and thus found themselves trapped in the justice system.
Children in care are those who are cared for and housed by an authority.
The most common reason children are taken into the care of social services is to protect them from abuse or neglect. In other cases, their parents might be absent or unable to cope due to illness.
The Northern Trust has confirmed that five young people in its care died between 2017/18 and 2020/21.
The reasons given for these deaths were drug abuse and suicide as well as pneumonia and accidental overdose.
At least 231 youth in care have been involved in criminal behavior or convicted in the past five years.
In the Western Trust, 51 young children were convicted, 105 were involved in criminal behavior in the Northern Trust and 72 in the Southern Trust.
And 121 children are registered or waiting for child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).
As of September last year, 83 children were registered with CAMHS and another 10 were waiting to access treatment in the Western Trust area.
The latest figures from the Northern Trust show that 24 children were awaiting mental health treatment while fewer than five were awaiting treatment at the Southern Trust.
For reasons of confidentiality, the Belfast and South trusts said that less than five children in their care had died. Neither trust provided figures related to offending behavior or mental health care.
NI Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), Koulla Yiasouma, said the residential care system was struggling to meet the needs of children.
“The majority of children in care never come into contact with the police. It has been evident for decades that our residential care system often struggles to meet the needs of all the children in its care,” she explained.
“NICCY has consistently raised concerns about the support and services available to these young people and also about the number of young people in custody who are being cared for.”
The Children’s Commissioner recently drew attention to the need to improve mental health services for all children and young people, when she released her third ‘Still Awaiting’ monitoring report.
She added: ‘I expressed my disappointment with the report and the Joint Health and Education Committees that limited progress has been made to implement recommendations that would make a tangible difference to emotional well-being. and child and youth mental health.
“Although there is a CAMH service for children in care (LAC) which specifically supports these young people, there has been no clear progress in setting up a regional CAMHS service for developmental disabilities ( DI) or services for under-18s with alcoholism and more serious mental health comorbidities, which is of great concern.
“We need to see the plans and revisions translated into services that support our most vulnerable young people, so they can reach their full potential.
“The Minister has announced an independent review of child welfare and NICCY looks forward to engaging with him so that these issues can be addressed.”
In Northern Ireland, over 3,500 children are cared for. This is 6.1% more than the last regional figures collected before Covid-19 as of September 30, 2019.
Of these, about 81% are in foster care and 6% in residential children’s homes. Health and social care trusts spend around £100m a year on children’s services.
A Department of Health (DoH) spokesperson acknowledged that children and young people in care are “some of the most vulnerable in our society”, with a range of varied and complex needs. “Many children in care will have experienced multiple childhood adversities and traumas.”
Linked to a commitment made as part of the Executive’s Child and Youth Strategy 2020-2030, in February 2021 the Department of Health and Department of Education released a joint strategy for children caught in charge.
Entitled “A Life Earned: Caring for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland”, it aims to improve outcomes for children and young people in care.
A DoH spokesperson said, “Progress is being made on a number of action commitments and strategic objectives set out in the strategy.”
In addition, a joint work program between the Ministries of Health and Justice is underway to develop a more aligned and therapeutic model of care for children and young people who are admitted to secure accommodation, with the aim of providing relationship-based and trauma-informed services. , individualized support for each child and teenager.
The department said “significant work” is also being undertaken to address the emotional health and wellbeing needs of children cared for in educational settings.