Seven out of 10 families caring for children and adults with learning difficulties are in "physical and emotional crisis" because of a lack of short break services, according to a report published this week.
The study by Mencap found that local authorities were "rationing" respite care due to budgetary pressures, leaving one in three families facing cuts in short break services in the past year.
It also found that more than half of families had not had a carer's assessment, while residential short break centres were facing closure around the country.
The news came as research by charity the Shared Care Network to be published in the autumn and seen by Community Care found one-third of short break schemes faced a shortage of carers.
Mencap interviewed 353 families in six local authority areas in England and Northern Ireland between May and July.
The charity called for a minimum level of short breaks equivalent to one night in every week of the year, increased central government funding and local authority audits of provision.
It also recommended the creation of a public service agreement - a high level government target - on the provision of short break services.
Chief executive Jo Williams said the charity was "appalled" that families were not getting the support they needed, three years after a previous Mencap survey reported similar findings.
"With no legal entitlement to short breaks, these families are falling to the back of the queue when it comes to funding and priority," she added.
The Shared Care Network's survey found that teenage boys with autistic spectrum disorders or "challenging" behaviour waited the longest time for breaks due to a lack of carers for children with complex needs.
A carer's view
"I was pushed to breaking point when we had our short break services cut and were left to fend for ourselves. Those were the darkest days of our family's life and I never want to go back there. It shouldn't have happened."
Carer quoted in Mencap's Breaking Point report.
Shared Care Network
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