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A young carer is any child or young person under the age of eighteen years whose life is restricted by the emotional or physical dependence or care of another family member.
This is a broad definition and includes young people who are caring for a parent, a brother or sister, a grandparent or other family member. They may be the main carer or be providing support to the main carer.
Can you give a couple of examples of situations young carers have been in?
I knew of a six-year-old boy, living with his father who suffered from severe mental health issues, and who is on strong medication that knocks him out. There is no mum in the family. His dad takes the medication at night believing that whilst his son is asleep there is no problem if he is unconscious. But the danger is, of course, that there could be an emergency like a fire. His dad needs the boy’s help just to get through the day. The child gets himself up each morning, may eat breakfast, gets ready for school and has to cross a very busy road to wait for the bus. He comes home again and has to cross the busy road to his house. His dad would be at home in whatever state of consciousness. They may try and cook something to eat together. He would go outside sometimes and play on his bike with a friend then go indoors and help dad get ready for bed first before going to bed himself.
I also worked with a family with five children; their mum had a brain tumour. There was no dad. The mum was totally incapable of doing anything to care for her children. The eldest daughter had been ‘being mum’ to the others for a few years before we knew of them. The children tried to help out to keep the family together but it was hard, as the two youngest didn’t really understand what was going on. They went on a summer holiday knowing it would be the last holiday their mum would manage. She died whilst they were away.
Which charity did you work for and how did you become involved?
The charity I worked for was South and Vale Carers Centre (Young Carers Project) I was attending a local college doing nursing, with a view to going to university. A Christian friend (who was a social worker) passed me a job description and said she thought I might be interested. I walked into college on the Monday morning, quit my course and applied for the job. Thankfully I got the job where I developed a deep desire to work with young carers and did so for four years until I moved north.
What did your job entail?
For many young carers just having someone to talk to may be all the help they need. Others may have quite complex needs and may require help to arrange support. The project will work with the family to ensure that as many support systems are in place as possible to provide carefree time for the young carer. With a young carer we would enable them to communicate their situation to other agencies and to provide emotional support. We provide one to one support in or out of school. We would also back up anything the school was doing to help the young carer. We also work with groups, enabling kids to have carefree time by organising trips and fun clubs. My role evolved to include being a Development Project Worker: My job was to visit primary and secondary schools (there were two hundred on the books in all of Oxfordshire) and talk to the head teacher, the heads of year and anyone else working with young people. I also worked alongside other organisations working within secondary schools as well as with health visitors, doctors, charities, and the media all to raise the awareness about young carers.
What sorts of changes did you see happen in young carers lives as a result?
In the case of the six year old boy, we raised concerns about the safety aspects of the medication his dad took, the crossing of the main road and the housework and cooking which no one had been able to manage. A male cleaner and cook were paid to come in on a daily basis. The dad’s medication was taken during the day, whilst his son was at school. This enabled him to be a little more coherent in the evening; therefore he was able to get himself ready for bed. The project enabled the little boy to go out on trips like, swimming, bowling and climbing or he went to the cinema, or to eat at pizza hut. He was able to make friends with other young carers and just be a normal young boy.
For the second family, we were able to take the younger children out on trips, and to go to a fun club and provide someone for them to talk to. We were able to be a support to the older three siblings, getting help within the house as was needed. Also we provided some time with them one to one, so they had a listening ear, someone they could confide their worries to. We involved other service providers as appropriate. After the mum’s death we continued support for at least six months, after which other service providers supported them in a more practical way.
How did your faith impact on the job you did?
I tried to show God’s love by being patient and understanding and by not judging them or their situation. I tried to just be there and give unconditionally my time and support, as it was needed. So often in life when people are in a hole we give them a shovel, a pickaxe or a JCB. When we’re in a hole God gives us a ladder. In no way could I change any of the situations these families found themselves in, but through God’s grace I was able to help equip them.
How would we recognise a young carer and whom should we tell if we think we know of one?
If you know of any adult who needs care and they have children, it is possible that the children are young carers. It is easy to recognise someone who is cared for if they are in a wheelchair, but what if they are drug addicts, have mental health issues, are agoraphobic, have cancer or M.E. or M.S? Or the child might have a sibling with ADHD, or behavioural problems, or any other serious illness. All of those things might stop the family leading a ‘normal’ family life and impact upon a child’s ability to live out a normal childhood. We need to be observant of youngsters we come into contact with. Don’t always assume that children who show bad behaviour are just naughty, they may have a hidden agenda as to why they behave the way they do, look closer. Schools can be helpful; children might talk in school either to a friend, a teacher or a school assistant. If you think someone you know may be a young carer, please do refer them to someone who can give them some support, there are so many kids who do so much which is unseen and they should have the chance to have a childhood too.
Can you think of any resources? Do you know of any websites where we could find out more or become involved?
The social services should know of young carers and young carers charities in your area. Click here for a website which gives some more information on young carers and tells you if there is a group in your area.
This interview was by Hilary with Sandra Foster