Overnight child respite care in NI 'full to capacity'
A number of families, who have children with challenging behavioural problems, have been told they will have to wait several years before they can access overnight respite care.
One mother was told her eight-year-old son will likely have to wait two years.
Another parent said her social worker informed her that "the system is full to capacity".
Both children had met the criteria that is required in order to be considered for overnight care.
Northern Ireland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koualla Yiasouma, said the care system for such children is a "Cinderella" service.
"It is very upsetting and distressing. Regrettably they are not on their own, there are other families on the waiting list.
"It is not reasonable to ask them to wait these enormous lengths of time for services and a family life that the rest of us take for granted."
While the children in these two cases are being supported by the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, a local charity has confirmed to the BBC that it is a common complaint among their members across the five health trusts.
Laura Flannigan told the BBC that her eight-year-old son, Eoin, is being denied a service.
"It is very disheartening. It takes a lot to admit you need that help for your child and then to be told 'yes we know you need that help' but there is nothing we can do for you.
She added: "I think it is crisis management. They do not have enough places and it seems to be that priority is given to families where their family has fallen apart. That is the stage it seems you need to get to."
All of Northern Ireland's five health trusts provide respite accommodation. However, according to Shirelle Stewart from the National Autistic Society, demand for places is far outstripping supply.
"It is a widespread problem across Northern Ireland, across all of the health trusts. Unfortunately, there is just a lack of respite beds for both children and adults."
"What I would really like to see is the executive and the politicians actually prioritising this issue because it is a service for people with autism. They need to ensure that unmet need is recorded and used in the commissioning for services."
Northern Ireland has a number of respite and long term residential places for children with disabilities, special educational needs and severe behavioural problems.
However families have told the BBC they are regularly informed by their social worker that it could mean a two year wait.
Donna Jennings, from Holywood, has an eight-year-old son, Micah. She said a senior manager from the Belfast health trust told her that even though her child met the criteria, no beds were available.
"(I was told) that while we were on the waiting list, it was never going to happen because the beds in Lindsay House were completely full. So it would probably be years before a bed was made available for Micah to have regular respite."
Scale of problem
It is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge just how many children in Northern Ireland have been diagnosed as having either special educational needs or severe behavioural problems.
While the health trusts provided the BBC with the number of facilities that provide respite care, not all of them could confirm how many children were using the facilities and how many were on a waiting list.
According to the Health and Social Care board statistics in Northern Ireland for 2014/2015:
•4031 children in need and known to social services with a disability
•1210 children with a disability who received respite care
There are 10 respite facilities across Northern Ireland. Each has between five to eight beds which can be used to care for children overnight, but there are over 1,200 children trying to access those beds.
In a statement, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust said:
"Children must be under 18 with a severe learning disability, challenging behaviour and be known to social services. (They must) have social work involvement and be assessed as needing short breaks due to their learning disability."
"Lindsay House accommodates children from the ages of five to 18 years and Willow Lodge between 11 and 18 years. Autism Initiatives Service has no age determinant, but does require users to be diagnosed as having Autistic Spectrum Disorder."
When asked how many children they can help at any one time, a trust spokesperson added:
"Belfast Trust has four places at any one time. These reduce by one for each child that requires one to one support, due to more complex needs, at Lyndsay House. Willow Lodge accommodates two children at any one time and Autism Initiatives Service have capacity for six young people. "
"The average waiting time, at present, is 16 months. Places are allocated on the basis of most pressing need, when a place becomes available as opposed to length of time waiting for a placement."