Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Thursday, 3 December 2009

Ambulance crew unable to find place for suicidal girl

Matt Precey
BBC News

East of England ambulance generic
The girl was in the ambulance for three hours. Picture East of England Ambulance Service

A mentally ill, suicidal teenager was ferried around for hours by an ambulance crew because no NHS unit would accept her, the BBC has learnt .

The girl eventually had to be taken to a police cell, documents revealed under the Freedom of Information Act show.

The case is revealed in a memo sent by one of the paramedics who dealt with the incident, which he described as a "clear system failure on the part of mental health services for children in Ipswich which caused distress and harm to the patient".

The memo, written on 5 March 2009, described how an ambulance was called to help a 15-year-old girl who had gone into a local newspaper office.

The girl was described as suicidal and suffering acutely paranoid delusions.

The paramedic described how the crew and police officers spent hours transporting the girl from location to location in an attempt to find a safe and secure place where she could be cared for, but without success.

We had to convey the patient to the police cells as a place of safety - this was the wrong environment for this sick and vulnerable child

He wrote that the first hospital they took her to, believed to be the main psychiatric hospital in Ipswich, St Clements, "declined to accept the patient as she was a juvenile" so the ambulance was diverted to the local juvenile psychiatry facility.

They were unable to accept the patient as the staff were on an "away day", the memo reports. It is understood this facility would not have been the agreed "place of safety" for such a patient anyway.

Unit not open

The receptionist suggested they contact someone from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service nearby.

When the crew got there, they were told the patient could not be accepted.

Another unit was suggested, but this would not be open until four days later.

The patient was then taken to A&E at Ipswich Hospital, but the crew was again told the patient could not be accepted there because she had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

The paramedic said: "As there was no alternative available, we had to convey the patient to the police cells as a place of safety. This was the wrong environment for this sick and vulnerable child".

A Suffolk Police custody log confirmed the girl was kept in the cells for six hours between 1700 GMT and 2300 GMT.

'Arrangement unsatisfactory'

The paramedic record showed that she was in their care for the previous three hours.

The Suffolk Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust said it was unable to discuss the care of an individual service user without their consent.

In a statement it said: "The default place of safety as at 5 March 2009 for people in east Suffolk aged under 17 was the police station in Ipswich.

"All agencies should have been aware that this was where young people detained under Section 136 would be taken by the police.

"All agencies involved recognised that the arrangement was unsatisfactory and welcomed the development of a new S136 suite by Suffolk Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust at the Wedgwood Unit in Bury St Edmunds.

"This opened earlier this year and is the current place of safety for all young people detained for assessment under S136."

A spokesperson for the East of England Ambulance Service said: "While in a similar situation it would be the police, rather than the ambulance staff who would need to be aware of the arrangements in place, we can confirm that our operational staff are fully conversant with the action they should take in an incident involving any young people in Suffolk detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act."

Suffolk Police said: "Changes in the Mental Health Act now allow for someone suffering from a mental illness to be transferred from one place of safety to another where it is considered to be in the best interests of the person concerned and with the agreement of those agencies involved in providing the care.

"The time taken to refer someone to the most appropriate health care professional can be affected by a number of issues for example, the degree of intoxication affecting some members of a highly vulnerable group of people or the availability of "out of hours" support from other agencies".

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