It is feared there could be more deaths of children in care
Nine children and young adolescents are now known to have died while being treated in mental health units in England since 2010.
And a leading charity representing bereaved families fears the number of deaths of youngsters in psychiatric units could be even higher.
Worryingly, research by the legal affairs charity Inquest suggests the Department of Health has no idea of the true figure.
In an interview screened as part of Monday night's BBC Panorama investigation the Minister for Community and Social Care Alistair Burt, admitted he didn’t know how many children and adolescents had died in the care of psychiatric units in recent years.
Told that Inquest had discovered at least nine deaths of youngsters in mental health units Mr Burt said he didn’t “know the number accurately” but his advice was that it was “very small”.
Inquest’s director, Deborah Coles, said “My fear is there could be more deaths. Neither we nor the Department of Health know.”
Calling for statutory notification and an independent investigation when a child dies in a mental health unit, she added “How on earth can we learn if we don’t know the true picture and circumstances?
“If a child died in prison an independent investigation follows automatically. There isn’t that independent scrutiny given to these deaths.”
Monday night’s Panorama tells the tragic story of Sara Green - a 17-year-old teenager who took her own life while admitted to the privately run Priory Hospital, paid for by the NHS.
The NHS places nearly half of its young psychiatric patients in private units - with The Priory receiving 85 per cent of funds from the public purse and charging an average £800 per night.
With a history of self-harming Sara was sent to The Priory Group’s Cheadle Royal Hospital in Stockport more than 100 miles away from her home in Humberside.
She was considered ready for discharge on a community placement after three months - but took her life while still at The Priory after nine months.
On admission to the Priory it had been Sara’s and her family’s expectation that she would be assessed and treated there for 6-8 weeks. She remained there for nine months due to a combination of the failure to manage her discharge and the shortage of NHS beds.
On the night of her death Sara was discovered in her hospital bedroom with a wire ligature tied eight times tightly around her neck.
The wire had been contained in a craft book given to Sara by staff at The Priory.
In one devastating diary extract feature on Monday night’s Panorama Sara is shown to have written: “I came into hospital with one or two suicide plans but now I have at least five.”
A spokesperson for The Priory confirmed they had carried out a full investigation since Sara’s death - and implemented changes as a result of the coroner’s damning findings.
The programme also highlights the case of another young girl Rachael Palin who is in a mental health unit 153 miles away from her family.
Her mother Tara’s fears Rachael is becoming institutionalised.
Tara says: “She’s getting worse.I see her with marks that she’s never had before.
“Marks round her neck, where she’d tried to make ligatures - learnt from being in these places, learnt off other children that she that are doing it.”
In a parliamentary answer last year Tory minister Mr Burt had suggested there had been only one such death recorded by the Care Quality Commission.
His predecessor, Norman Lamb, said there had been none.
But the Inquest, drawing from their own case work and Freedom of Information requests, discovered the nine child and adolescent deaths in NHS mental health units.
Current reporting of deaths is confused and incomplete.
The Care Quality Commission, cited by the DoH as collecting accurate data, is only notified of the deaths of young people committed to hospital or sectioned.
This omits the deaths of voluntary patients, who comprise a large part of the hospital population.
Since the minister spoke to Panorama, the Department of Health says NHS England now accepts there have been four deaths of young people “in an in-patient setting”.
Mr Burt issued a statement saying “Panorama’s investigation has unearthed questions about record keeping and I’m seeking assurances from NHS England that they have the right processes in place for recording any such death and that lessons are learned.”
Department of Health officials say they’re want to meet Inquest to resolve the discrepancy in the figures.
BBC Panorama, I’m Broken Inside: Sara’s Story, is screened on BBC One on Monday at 7:30pm
Labour shadow cabinet minister for mental health Luciana Berger on Sunday called the deaths of nine youngsters in mental care a “tragedy.”
The Liverpool Wavertree MP said: “Every one of these deaths is a tragedy. They all deserve to be acknowledged and properly investigated, so lessons can be learned.
“I asked Jeremy Hunt last year how many children have died in psychiatric in-patient units since 2010 and his Department couldn’t answer.
"They still don’t know. Jeremy Hunt professes to be pushing for a transparency revolution in the NHS - it’s a disgrace that this isn’t been applied to mental health.”