Teenage drink and drug use fears in Northumberland
Hundreds of vulnerable children in Northumberland are struggling with substance misuse, figures suggest.
Authorities in the area have flagged more than 1,000 concerns about children abusing alcohol or drugs over the last four years, according to data gathered by the Department for Education.
Charity Barnardo's says more should be done to tackle the "alarming" issue of drug and alcohol use among children referred to social care services across England.
Figures for Northumberland show 428 concerns about child-related alcohol misuse and 622 cases relating to drug abuse were identified during assessments of children in need between 2017-18 and 2020-21.
In the latest year, assessors flagged 248 concerns about childhood substance misuse – 157 cases involving a youngster's drug use, and 91 their misuse of alcohol.
That figure was down from 309 the year before but higher than the 197 cases recorded in 2018-19, before the coronavirus pandemic.
The total number of concerns does not necessarily equate to the number of children involved, as a child could be recorded as needing support for both drug and alcohol use at the same assessment.
Concerns about young people aged over 18, who are still receiving post-care support from children's social care services, are included in the figures.
Across England, concerns around a child's drug or alcohol use were identified 39,000 times at assessments in 2020-21 – down 7% from the year before, but up 9% compared to 2018-19.
Barnardo's interim co-CEO Michelle Lee-Izu said the figures were alarming and that the impact of the pandemic on young people's mental health could have contributed to their use of drugs and alcohol. Young people’s mental health has seen a considerable decline during the pandemic due to the isolation and stress caused by lockdowns.
Calling for increased funding for mental health support in schools, she said: “To counter this, and help children and young people cope with the trauma, loss and adversity they have experienced, we need a radically different approach to ensure they get the support they need."
National figures could be higher, as the pandemic contributed to a 7% drop in referrals about children in need in 2020-21, mainly driven by a fall in referrals from schools, according to the DfE.
In Northumberland social services received 2,589 referrals about children in need last year – 19% fewer than 3,182 in 2019-20.
There were 2,253 children in need in the area as of the end of March, the figures show.
They were among 388,000 youngsters across England in need of help and protection from local authority services.
A Government spokeswoman said it was providing investment to charities supporting vulnerable children and giving billions of pounds to local authorities to help them respond to pressures, including for children's services.
She added: “We’re also making £24 million available for a regional recovery fund for children’s social care, to tackle the most pressing issues vulnerable children face in those areas, as well as providing more investment in mental health support and championing Family Hubs so parents can access important support services for themselves and their children.
“The Independent Care Review will also address the sector's major challenges.”