The number of young carers in the UK is increasing. The official figure is 175,000 but this is likely to be a massive underestimate.
In November 2006, children’s charity Barnardo’s published a report and survey (with YouGov) showing the reality of life for young carers. Hidden Lives demonstrated that many young carers are excluded from official statistics and, in effect, are left to cope alone, often for years.
Most teachers surveyed said families failed to request support because they feared social services might become involved and break up the family.
Hidden Lives and the YouGov survey showed what many of us have known for years: that children caring for parents and siblings are failing to be identified as carers and are missing out on vital support. This means that they can wait years to find help, the average being four years.
We know that young carers often assume too much responsibility for their age, involving physical or emotional care or responsibility for someone’s safety or well-being. The impact of this can include underachievement or absenteeism at school, mental or physical ill-health and poverty. Given that most young carers are in the 13-15 age group and have caring duties that last, on average, 17 hours a week, it is crucial that local authorities tackle this growing problem.
But what makes a difference to young carers? Overwhelmingly, young carers tell me they want normal stuff: to have their friends and teachers understand how they feel, to be able to go out to social events like everybody else does, to not be tired all the time, to know how to decide whether to skip school or call for more help and so on. And they want to be selfish sometimes without the fear of being judged by friends, family and school. Instead, what they have to do is keep up an act, putting on a smile and pretending things are better than they are.
So what can local authorities do to help young carers? The first aim of adults’ and children’s services should be to ensure that clients who have children do not have to rely on the inappropriate caring role of a child. They can achieve this by adopting a whole-family approach that supports adults who have care needs with their parenting role and reduces the impact of the caring role on the child.
Adults’ services are sometimes the first to become aware that a young person is a young carer, or is at risk of becoming one, and should offer a joint assessment of the child’s needs with children’s services and then work jointly to meet those needs.
Partnership working with the voluntary sector, adequately funded and supported by service level agreements, can often create the kinds of support valued by children and young people.
Creative provision by voluntary organisations can cover much of what young carers are asking for and successfully reach out to young carers who are often reluctant to use traditional services. Direct payments can also be a great way to enable them to mix and match what works best for them.
Sally Anfilogoff is a consultant, trainer and writer specialising in carers’ issues
This article appeared in the 3 May issue under the headline “It’s time to give young carers what they’ve been asking for”