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Children whose parents have mental health difficulties are poorly supported and protected

Inconsistent mental health provision is disadvantaging young people in care, claims Ofsted

Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) have called on the government to make it a mandatory requirement for mental health services to collect data on children whose parents or carers have mental health difficulties and report on such data nationally.

The recommendation is contained in a joint survey published by the two regulators. The report What about the children? highlights how the lack of identification of children living with parents with mental ill health has led to them not receiving the help they need, with some being left at risk of harm.

Currently, it is a mandatory requirement for adult services to gather information about children and report to the National Treatment Agency for Substance Abuse where their parents have drugs/and or alcohol problems. However, this is not the case for children whose parents have serious mental health difficulties. The lack of national drivers for these children has meant they are poorly supported and protected compared to those whose parents have substance abuse problems.

Analyses by Ofsted of serious case reviews between 2007 and 2011 where children had either died or been seriously harmed, showed that mental health difficulties, drug and alcohol problems and domestic abuse were the most common characteristics of the families involved.

It is estimated that at any one time as many as 9 million adults – 1 in 6 of the population – experience mental ill health. Data are not collected nationally about how many of the adults receiving specialised mental health services are parents or carers, but it is estimated that 30% of adults with mental ill health have dependent children.

With no data being collected locally or nationally on the number of children whose parents or carers have mental health difficulties, inspectors found that lack of identification meant poor joint working between children's social care and adult mental health services which potentially left some children at risk.

For example, a mother had a history of anxiety and depression. Her mental health deteriorated after her partner left and was referred by her GP to adult mental health services. The assessment by the practitioner found the mother had not showered in for six months, rarely left the house and spent most days asleep. The assessment noted the mother had two children, aged eight and 10 living with her but identified no risks to them. A referral to children's social care was made some months later only as a result of the mother's admission to hospital.

In long-term cases which were repeatedly opened and closed, children either sometimes received support for a substantial period of a time or intermittently. This raises questions about sustainability of support and the need for long term help when cases are closed, or robust planning if parents are unable to look after their children.

The report is accessible here.