Two out of five children in care in Northern Ireland have behavioural difficulties, academic research has indicated.
One in three suffer from a long-standing disability or illness, the three-year study by Queen’s University found.
The research looked at the mental and physical health of children and young people in care and how the system meets their needs.
There are about 2,800 looked after looked-after children and young people (LACYP) in Northern Ireland.
The study by Queen’s School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work was based on a sample of 233.
Lead researcher and psychologist, Dr Dominic McSherry, said: “This research is first and foremost about understanding the health needs of LACYP in Northern Ireland, and highlighting ways that these can be addressed to ensure their future health and well-being.
“These children and young people receive limited attention in health services research, even though their poor health potentially impacts on a whole range of outcomes, including educational and economic achievement, quality of life, and future parenting.
“Furthermore, health problems can place significant strain on placements and lead to placement breakdowns, which itself can be emotionally costly for the young people and the families involved.
“The research we carry out at Queen’s is not just academic - it’s for the benefit of the individual and the wider community. As a university we want to make sure that our findings are used in order to make a difference to the quality of life for Looked After Children and Young People in Northern Ireland by informing legislation, policy and practice.
“To their credit, the NI government and Health and Social Care Board have begun to invest significantly in prevention and early intervention programmes, and in the provision of therapeutic services for LACYP, but this commitment needs to be continued and built upon”.
The research, which makes a series of recommendations to the Executive, was funded by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
The key findings included:
:: 40% of LACYP had been diagnosed with behavioural problems; 35% with emotional problems and 21% with depression or anxiety;
:: One third were suffering from a long-standing illness or disability;
:: Young people living in residential care had a much more negative health profile than those living in foster or kinship care;
:: Despite the levels of behavioural and emotional problems, most carers considered the children and young people to be ‘healthy’ - indicating that notions of health tend to be physically orientated;
:: Some LACYP had difficulties in accessing the services they needed, due to a range of issues including long waiting lists; lack of availability in local areas; difficulties in accessing the appropriate service and a lack of available information;
:: Gaps in service provision were identified, with some having to do with lack of resources and capacity issues;
:: Some positive factors were identified as currently helping to meet the children’s health needs including: priority status for LACYP in their referral to particular services; professional co-operation; placement stability and well supported foster placements; and support services from statutory and voluntary organisations.