Police officers often face “no realistic option” other than locking children as young as 11 years old in cells under mental health laws, it has emerged.
The 347 such detentions in England and Wales last year (2011) potentially caused paranoia, delusions, extreme “fear and distress” in young people.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) claimed provision for young people in some parts of the country was “patchy”, leading to children being placed in cells for more than 24 hours in some cases.
“It’s quite clear that in some places police officers who are finding vulnerable young people at a point of crisis have no realistic option other than to take them to cells,” said Chief Constable Simon Cole, ACPO’s head of local policing and partnerships.
He added: “I don’t think that anyone looking at that situation would think that that’s the best answer.”
Under the Mental Health Act children suspected of being mentally ill and in “need of care or control” can be taken to a safe place for assessment. But in exceptional circumstances, where psychiatric units or children’s homes are unavailable, they are placed in cells.
The Health Minister, Norman Lamb, described the situation as “completely unacceptable”.
The BBC’s World This Weekend cited examples of one 13-year-old being locked-up for 22 hours and another two teenagers held for 24 hours.
Mental health campaigners said vulnerable and distressed children were being treated like “criminals”.
“Putting them in police cells is really only going to make them worse – it will exacerbate feeling of paranoia, delusions and extreme fear and distress,” said Lucie Russell, of the Young Minds mental health charity.
She added: “It’s a reflection of what’s happening in society in terms of pressure on services that we’re having to resort to this and that the police are having to deal with young people in this way.”
Senior police officers said providing an out-of-hours support service for young people could take “quite some time”.
Government plans for diversion services to access and treat children before they spend time in custody are due by 2014.
Mr Lamb said: “The fact that we can expose this and bring this an end is a good thing.”