More than 160,000 children may be classed as young carers, a recent report by the Children’s Commissioner revealed. Yet time and again, these children are being failed by a system and falling through the cracks due to poor support and piecemeal provision.
And, in this time of austerity, this situation will only get worse, pushing families to breaking point as young carers struggle to juggle the needs of their role and leading healthy lives as children.
Recently, Young Carers Bucks, hit the news as it battled to raise £15,000 for a safe space for young carers at their head office in Aylesbury. Reliant on charity fundraising and donations by benefactors and supports, the service – which provides support for more than 700 children – is facing challenges to meet the needs of its population.
“The problem is, with austerity, there’s a lot less money around for many people. Income has gone down in regards to fundraising,” says SharedVision’s Rachel Maloney. “This is having a direct impact on the services young carers charities offer.”
The challenges facing young carers is complicated, with no real set pathway to accessing services. Many may not be known to social services – the Children’s Commissioner estimates 4 out 5 young carers may receive no support at all from the local authority – while many would prefer to remain hidden “due to either stigma around the role” or concerns about what “social services help might look like, particularly when a parent might have a mental health or substance misuse issue,” says Rachel.
“The consequences of not having a clear pathway for support – or even a pathway ensuring carers are aware of their rights in legislation [which should entitle them to a needs assessment] can have huge detrimental implications for that child and that family,” she continues.
Indeed, many young carers – more than a quarter – have been identified as having care needs of their own. Again, the real figure is likely to be vastly inflated, but it means these children are not only missing out on support, but could also find themselves in a difficult situation as they get older.
“If you haven’t got an effective system,” says Rachel, “you probably wouldn’t identify a child as having additional support needs until they are found to be underperforming in school or are demonstrating some level of difficulty.
“If it reaches that point, you’re already intervening too late because we’ve already got into difficulty,” she says.
And this – with young carers’ services facing a budgetary crisis – is what we’re facing. Research by the Carers Trust and The Children’s Society estimate that young carers miss or cut short 48 school days a year. They often struggle with mental health problems and achieve significantly lower GCSE grades due to the impact of their caring role.
The challenge is, a whole generation of young carers risk missing out on a future as joining up services is simply too difficult, or stigma prevails, preventing people from accessing appropriate support and help.
Low level intervention
But, even in the face of austerity, it doesn’t have to be like this, and simple interventions can go a long way to improving support for young cares, says Rachel:
“A successful intervention doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It’s around a shift in attitude and a shift of awareness.
“For example, in schools, they will have support for pupils. They have to legally. So all they need to do is widen their awareness in regards to their needs in relation to young carers – it could be something as simple as a teacher having a badge that says ‘Young Carer Aware’.
“But, the impact of this is that, if a child comes into that school and see that badge, they will know someone in that school knows what a young carer is and cares enough to communicate that. It could even just be a poster on a noticeboard that just says ‘Here’s where you can go to have a chat and these people will listen to you’.
“These things don’t cost money. It just requires a shift in attitude.”
An ideal pathway
Of course, at a local level, practical interventions could prove beneficial, but there still needs to be a cultural shift at national level to ensure young carers receive appropriate help and support. A Memorandum of Understanding does exist, written at the start of the decade. Yet it only legislates for a needs assessment, says Rachel. Much more could be done to improve the pathway to access support, she says:
“The ideal for me would be that schools, health professionals – including GPs or whoever has contact with this child – is aware of the needs of the young carer and aware that they might not be getting appropriate support.
“They would also be aware of the health and support needs of the parent that child is caring for, and ensuring they too are not getting the right support.
“If the adult is getting the services they need, and the child is getting the support they need, then they’ll remain in a caring role, but they’re not in it on their own and they can be confident someone else will be caring for their parent while they are at school.
“We would want every child to not feel silenced,” she continues.
“Every child should know it is OK to ask for help and to not have to deal with it all alone.
“Children, like most adults, do not want to be labelled or pigeonholed, but unfortunately there is a necessity to do this to gain specific assessment rights and support.
“If we can get the balance right, whereby young carers are not characterised in terms of being either ‘heroes or victims’ but seen as children first and foremost, we will be on the right road to ensure we listen to what they need and provide a virtuous cycle of support,” she concludes.
When it’s written down it all seems so easy – sadly getting it right in practice is still proving much harder…