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Research finds children’s services failing on statutory mental health assessments

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Many councils are not meeting their statutory duty to complete initial mental health assessments of children placed in care, a report has found.

Research by thinktank Localis, published today, said that during 2014-16 the average completion rate for ‘strength and difficulties questionnaires’ (SDQs) was 75% but the performance of individual councils in England was “highly variable”.

It found that 15 of councils had a completion rate of 50% or less, while 36 councils completed 90% or more SDQs.

There has been a statutory requirement for councils to use SDQs for the early identification of mental health needs for children in care since 2009.

Localis’ report ’A Healthy State of Mind’ said three councils reported no use of SDQs. A Care Quality Commission report last year said Southampton City Council has had no provision of SDQs for several years. Southampton had not responded to LGC’s requests for comment at the time of publication.

SDQs can be given to a child or completed by an adult with a good understanding of the child’s behaviour. Professionals in local government and the NHS have highlighted the advantages of using SDQs, the report says.

It added that while questionnaires are not the sole means of assessment, they provide an opportunity to initially identify problems and can be used by professionals with no grounding in mental health.

They are also said to be useful for identifying children with support needs who are not explicitly showing mental health problems.

The report said: “If even this relatively simple method of mental health assessment is not being used then it is likely that such local authorities also find it difficult to conduct much more labour intensive screening processes, such as health assessments.”

The report found that “something has gone badly wrong” in child and adolescent mental health services, despite a government investment of £1.4m in January this year to create a “parity of esteem” between physical and mental health services.

Localis said this was because the system remained over-stretched due to a lack of early intervention, poor referrals and the limited ways young people can access services.

In a series of recommendations, the report says that councils should be able to retain 6.5% of the pupil premium centrally to in order to commission mental health services in schools.

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