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Vast disparities in health outcomes for children in care in Scotland

Image of girl looking out a window
Image credit: Jeremiah Lawrence (Unsplash)

A new report has found that children in care in Scotland have far worse health outcomes, including diagnoses of mental health issues, than children in the general population

The research, led by the University of Glasgow, investigated health outcomes for over 660,000 school-aged children from between 2009 and 2016 with a particular focus on the differences between children who had experienced going into care and those who had not.

The so-called Children's Health in Care in Scotland – AKA CHiCS – study found that care-experienced children were more likely than children in the general population to make contact with mental health services, specifically with regards to medication prescriptions, outpatient clinic attendances, and inpatient admission for mental health and behavioural disorders.

In addition, children in care were more likely to be admitted to hospital for injuries or drug poisoning, and were 5-times more likely to lose their life.

The research is the first of its kind, solely established with the objective to analyse health outcomes among children in the UK. Previous findings suggested that certain conditions, including epilepsy, cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy, were all more common among care-experienced children.


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Children included in the study were part of the Scottish Government Looked After Children statistics and pupil census from 2009. Pupils who were not in school (4% of all pupils) were not included in the analysis.

Importantly, the study results were consistent even when deprivation was accounted for – i.e. whether a child came from a healthy background or not had little influence on the main findings.

“We already know that care-experienced children have, on average, lower socio-economic status at birth and they live in areas of higher deprivation compared with children in the general population, but this is the first time differences in health between care-experienced and other children have been expressed in numbers at population level," said Dr Mirjam Allik, research fellow at the University of Glasgow’s MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit.

“Health inequalities between children and young people with and without care experience are not inevitable. This can and should change."

A government under fire

Recent reports of a struggling mental health service is resulting in some heavy criticism of the Scottish government.

Earlier this month, figures from Audit Scotland, the country's public service watchdog, showed that 1 in 5 young people waiting for specialist mental health treatment had been waiting over a year a figure that has tripled since March 2020. Similar figures had been reported by Public Health Scotland three months earlier.

The new figures from the CHiCS study, although regarding data from at least 5 years ago, highlights yet another area for the Scottish government to address for protecting young people's mental health.

"We hope that over the next year the study will provide the first robust nationwide evidence to help inform policy in relation to care-experienced children; and that it assists with the prioritisation of services by identifying precise areas of heightened needs," added Allik.

Read the most recent CHiCS study findings here.


Written by Marco Ricci

Editor for Talking Mental Health


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