The Children’s Society has created a toolkit to help services meet the needs of young refugee carers, reports Louise Tickle
Nadifa,* 17, is from Somalia. From the age of 10, she has been looking after her mother, who has epilepsy and profound hearing loss.
Because Nadifa’s mother is deaf, it has been almost impossible for her to learn English. This means Nadifa, who is now fluent, has had to translate in all the family’s interactions with officialdom, including organising medical appointments, dealing with doctors and nurses and arranging for prescription renewals.
If a crisis occurs, as it did two years ago when their tenancy came to an end, it falls to Nadifa to make the calls and find a solution. “I was doing my GCSEs at the time, and I rang the council [the landlord] and said it would be good if we could stay,” she says. “I called and called, and finally it was sorted. But in 2010 we will have to go through it all again. And this time I’m worried about whether we’ll be able to keep the house.”
Isolation is a particular problem for young carers, but at least if you’re originally from the UK you may know someone who can share the load. If you’re an asylum seeker or refugee coping with chronic illness or disability in your family, such networks are more scarce.
“If something happens, other children have uncles and aunties,” says Nadifa. “In my case, it’s just me and my mum. It can feel quite lonely sometimes. I would prefer it if I had family around, because there are some situations where you need help, and you can’t really deal with it on your own.”
To give the right kind of support to young carers in refugee and asylum-seeking families so they are not left to struggle alone, the Children’s Society has launched its Refugee Toolkit, a free online resource for all adults’ and children’s services developed as part of the Children’s Society’s Family Health Inclusion Project.
The idea is to help practitioners ensure help is accessed smoothly without the child having to search for it. Asylum seekers and refugees, for example, have different entitlements to healthcare and social support. A young person negotiating their way through the system has no way of knowing this, so the person they care for may miss out on help, financial support and medical treatment if their immigration status changes.
Helen Joyce, project worker at the Children’s Society’s Newcastle office, says that asking a child to translate can be highly inappropriate – particularly in medical appointments – and can also compromise the parent’s care and future health if they choose not to communicate fully in front of their son or daughter.
“We need a real push to encourage authorities not to rely on children, and to take advantage of services such as the telephone interpretation system Language Line if there is no time to organise a local interpreter,” Joyce says.
Of course, it’s not always easy to identify someone as a young carer if they’re from a culture in which it’s seen as normal for small children to work hard in the home. There remains a strong imperative, however, to ensure that children are not placed under the unbearable strain that can ensue from years spent supporting dependent family members.
“If a young person is the carer, it turns the whole parenting dynamic on its head,” says Malcolm Hazleton, Nadifa’s support worker and Newham Carers’ Network’s young carers’ services co-ordinator. “Depending on the illness and the pressures they live under, it’s more likely that these children will go on to develop their own mental health problems.
“Refugee children are even more prone to that because they may not have the normalising factors of community and feeling secure in school.”
In an ideal world, healthcare, social and education services would work seamlessly to anticipate needs so that asylum-seeking and refugee children don’t become carers in the first place. In the meantime, the Toolkit offers comprehensive advice and information on linking services that can help alleviate the frustrations and pressures many young refugee carers struggle with daily.
*Not her real name
Points for practice
● Make a translation service available from the outset. Avoid relying on children as interpreters and never ask them to interpret for a family member when it involves conveying a person’s health or social care needs, an experience of torture, or a human rights abuse.
● Provide psychological and counselling support to family members who have been the victim of torture including individual counselling for adults and children or family therapy.
● Ensure young people know their entitlements may change if their family’s immigration status changes.
● Work closely with practitioners from other agencies to improve young people’s experiences of accessing services.]
Published in the 11 June 2009 edition of Community Care under the heading Lone Battles