Over-reliance on gardaí in mental health crises sees children ‘criminalised’ - report

Officers did best to cope with complex cases but felt ill-equipped, research finds

Many of those interviewed - including gardai and medical professionals - believed there was a need for 24-hour A&E-type service for mental health crisis cases.  Photograph: iStock

Many of those interviewed - including gardai and medical professionals - believed there was a need for 24-hour A&E-type service for mental health crisis cases. Photograph: iStock

 

There was an “over-reliance” on the Garda to manage mental health crises in the community and children in crisis were suffering “criminalisation” so they could be taken back to Garda stations for further assessment, new research has found.

This was happening even though “all” of the gardai interviewed for the Police Authority-funded report “felt strongly” a station was an inappropriate place for a child in crisis and may cause “further psychological distress to the child” and their guardians.

The researchers also found the Garda force was called to about 90 barricade incidents each year yet records showed mental health professionals assisted as just three hostage, barricade or suicide incidents last year. This was “a cause for concern” as the Garda Inspectorate previously said mental health experts should advise in all such cases and the Garda force had long claimed that recommendation had been implemented.

Due to a “disjointed and indistinct policy landscape” the researchers could not find any directives from Garda Headquarters, about how to deal with a child mental health crisis. It was “not clear” to the researchers if such directives existed.

“All Garda members felt significantly undertrained in matters of mental health and neurodiversity, and ill equipped to manage children experiencing a crisis mental health event,” says the report.

The new research into the way Garda members are used as the first responders in child mental health crises pointed to the “unintentional criminalisation of children during a mental health crisis callout” as gardaí did their best to cope with often complex cases.

One Garda member explained the rationale for using the criminal law against a child in crisis, thus: “You could arrest them, even if the parents said they’re not making a complaint, if you’re just not happy you arrest them for breaching the peace or something like that to, just to get them out of there like, do you know.”

Others Garda members echoed those views, saying frontline gardaí had little choice: “I think a lot of guards would tend to deal with the criminal act first and then deal with the mental health, and it should really be the other way around.”

Many of those interviewed - including gardai and medical professionals - believed there was a need for 24-hour A&E-type service for mental health crisis cases.

“The recent launch of a pilot crisis intervention programme within the Limerick Garda division is a welcome step towards this goal,” the report notes. “It is recommended that careful consideration be given to the pilot programs applicability to youth crisis mental health events.”

The Policing Authority said the findings offered a valuable insight into a complex area of police work and recommended better education, training and supports for Garda members as well as suggesting new protocols and procedures.

“We hope this research will assist the Garda Commissioner in improving policing services, and held provide better outcomes for children,” authority chairman Bob Collins said.

The report praised Garda members for the compassion and commitment to showed to the children in crisis. It added such cases placed a significant psychological burden on Garda members, who felt ill-equipped to deal with children in mental health crisis.

Garda members often “dreaded” dealing with such cases and felt vulnerable for lack of training and clear legislation and procedures for dealing with minors experiencing mental health crisis, they adapted their own ways of helping the children as best they could.

The report - Garda Síochána and Child Mental Health: An investigation of pathways to crisis mental health care - was published by the Policing Authority on Wednesday. It was funded under the authority’s inaugural research bursary scheme in 2019.

The research was carried out by Prof Fiona McNicholas and Dr Louise Rooney, both of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the UCD School of Medicine, and Dr Deirdre Healy of the UCD Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

The researchers interviewed 18 Garda members as well as some children who had contact with gardai during a mental health crisis, as well as their families.