Many vulnerable children ‘stuck’ in mental health hospitals, report reveals

Children's commissioner for England says recruiting high-quality nurses is vital to improve care for vulnerable children

Nurse staffing should be part of a national strategy to improve care for vulnerable children

Recruiting high-quality staff, including nurses, would help prevent vulnerable children with learning disabilities or autism being 'stuck' in mental health hospitals for too long, a report recommends.

Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has published a damning report, stating too many children are being admitted to secure hospitals unnecessarily, and for too long.

It also found inpatient units struggle to recruit and retain staff, particularly nurses, which has meant a reliance on agency and support staff.

Call for fully-funded community support

Report recommendations include a call for hospitals to focus on recruiting 'high-quality' staff and invest in training. It also calls on the government to produce a new fully-funded plan for community support for children with complex needs.

Children’s Commissioner for England
Anne Longfield

Ms Longfield said: '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.'

In September 2018 there were 3,192 learning disability nurses working in hospital and community health services in England – the lowest since NHS Digital records began in September 2009, when 5,553 were employed.

Unnecessary hospitalisations

Other findings in the report include:

  • A 127% increase in the number of children in a mental health hospital in England, rising from 110 in March 2015 to 250 in February 2019.
  • About 1 in 7 children had spent at least a year in their current hospital with their current provider, but could have returned home had support been provided.
  • Fifty five children were in a ward more than 60 miles from home.
  • Quality of hospital care was highly variable – one family said their son had not been given a wash for six months while in hospital.

Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: 'The NHS is committed to reducing numbers of people with a learning disability and autistic people who are inpatients in mental health hospitals by 35% by the end of March 2020.

'Through the NHS Long Term Plan, we will reduce numbers even further by investing in specialist services and community crisis care and giving local areas greater control of their budgets to reduce avoidable admissions and enable shorter lengths of stay.'

Further information

Children's Commissioner (2019) Far Less Than They Deserve – Children with Learning Disabilities or Autism Living in Mental Health Hospitals

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