Mental health system fails children in out-of-home care

Victoria’s mental health system is failing children in out-of-home and residential care, who urgently need help but often wait months to access mental health services.

“These are children who have already suffered things most people cannot imagine,” says Liana Buchanan, the state’s Principal Commissioner for Children. “Too many just can’t get the help they need and we see the consequences.”

Between October 2018 and May 2019, there were 538 serious incidents relating to children in out-of-home care reported to the Children’s Commission.
Between October 2018 and May 2019, there were 538 serious incidents relating to children in out-of-home care reported to the Children’s Commission.

The state children’s watchdog has submitted a scathing analysis of Victoria’s fragmented and underfunded mental health system to the royal commission into mental health.

“It’s hard to navigate, it’s hard to get an appointment and you can only imagine what it’s like for children in out-of-home care,” Ms Buchanan says.

New figures provided to the royal commission show that between October 2018 and May 2019 there were 538 serious incidents relating to children in out-of-home care reported to the Children’s Commission.

One in 10 of these involved a child self-harming or attempting suicide. Almost three-quarters involved children in residential care.

Mental health issues are the single most common concern raised with Ms Buchanan as she visits children across the state.

“When these children can’t access mental health services it confirms their preconception that nobody cares. And these are young people who really need support; they are involved in serious risk-taking behaviour,” Ms Buchanan says.

“We need to get much better at responding to harm to children. If we don’t we’re always going to see significant mental health [issues] arising from those experiences.”

The Children’s Commission holds an inquiry into the death of every child that dies within a year of having contact with child protection.

New analysis presented to the royal commission of completed death inquiries in the past two years found 14 relevant cases.

In eight of the deaths, the child had a diagnosed mental disorder. In another six cases, the child did not have a diagnosis but had clearly experienced trauma.

Five of the children died by suicide, another three from drug or alcohol-related causes. In nine cases, a child was using mental health services.

One of the common issues uncovered was a failure to recognise that a referral to a mental health service was necessary.

The most common issue for all of the children was a lack of information sharing or co-ordination between different services involved with a child.

In one example, a child moved from one region to another but the new region did not agree to fund the psychological services the child had been using.

In another, a mental health service did not understand its legal obligations and refused to share information with child protection.

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