Shock At Number Of Child Carers

Up to 4,000 children in Suffolk – some as young as five – are now the main carers for either their parents or siblings, shocking new evidence has revealed. It sparked calls last night for more help from social services and support groups to assist the youngsters amid fears they are missing out on their childhoods. Suffolk Young Carers, a project run by Claydon-based charity Suffolk Family Carers, has revealed that children as young as five are taking on responsibilities in the family household that would usually be carried out by an adult.

In addition to school, young carers prepare meals, help siblings with homework, pay bills at the local post office and do the housework. They then have to do their own homework.

This could be because their parents or another family member suffer from long-term or short-term illness, a problematic use of drugs or alcohol, mental illness or a disability.

Jacqui Martin, chief executive of Suffolk Family Carers, said: “We’re talking about young people in tough situations and we’re only touching the tip of the iceberg. These young carers slip through the network of services because nobody realises what is going on. Teachers think they’re late for school or coming in dishevelled because they are up to no good but the truth is that they’re looking after their parents or siblings. Some can end up on the education welfare system before they’re even recognised as young carers.”

These children can slip through the network of services because adults around them, such as social workers and teachers, do not realise they are the main carer in the family. They also do not come forward for help because they are worried about being bullied, isolated or taken away from their homes.

Now Suffolk Family Carers, part of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, is calling for schools, adult and children’s services and the health service to help support these youngsters.

Mrs Martin said: “It is a positive role which can be character-building but only if the balance is right and it’s not restricting their opportunities. We need to address the balance and we can only do that with a multi-agency approach.”

Young carers’ schooling can suffer because they are unable to do their homework or they turn up late and get penalised for it. Their social activity may also be restricted because they do not have friends over to stay because they do not want people to find out about their caring duties or they cannot go to after-school clubs because they need to get home.

“They need support and their role needs to be acknowledged,” said Mrs Martin. “We need to ensure they have the same opportunities as other young people.”

Caroline Sutton, programme manager for the Children’s Fund, which is administered by Suffolk County Council, agreed that partnership between various agencies is the key to helping young people as well as looking at individual needs. She said: “We need to assist and listen to the needs of the young people and their families.

“For example, when young carers were asked what would make their lives easier, they said less time at school. People might say that that is what all children want but actually for a young carer less hours at school mean they have more hours to care for their relative, parent or sibling.”

She also said there are a lot of services out there that young carers have access to but that are not necessarily aimed at them per se.

These include the Family Conferencing Group and the Youth Inclusion Support Panel.

Mrs Sutton also said that the social services are always under-funded but they need to make the best use of the funds by working together.

Chris Harrison, spokesperson for the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “We would hope we all recognise the involvement of a range of services in providing support. Suffolk is coming up to speed but it’s difficult for all counties, especially rural and shire ones that are not funded as much.”