A report by Radio 4's The World At The Weekend claims that police officers often have 'no realistic option' other than to lock up children as young as 11 who appear to be mentally ill.
The programme found that when police are called to deal with young people (who have not necessarily committed a crime) they can end up detaining them prior to making a mental health assessment if they are believed to be mentally ill and in need of 'care or control'.
Figures obtained from a Freedom of Information request by Radio 4 found that two out of 347 under-18s were detained for more than 24 hours last year, and out of the 42 forces in England and Wales who provided data, 35 had held children under the age of 18 in custody under the Mental Health Act.
Legislation allows detention for up to 72 hours, and assessment can be undertaken in hospital or a care home, but can also be carried out at a police station in a cell.
Health Minister Norman Lamb said the Department of Health is working towards providing better local services so that 'health-based' places of safety are available as soon as possible.
"All services should be working together to minimise the chance that children and young people with a mental illness end up in a police cell," Mr Lamb told The Independent.
"Using police cells in this way should happen as little as possible and only where there are circumstances where it is unavoidable or where the person's behaviour poses an unmanageably high risk."
He added that £54 million has already been invested over four years to 2014-15 to bring about better mental health care provisions to children and young people when they experience mental health issues.