By Angus Stickler
Many children may not get adequate support
A charity for young carers is calling on the government to set up an urgent inquiry into the plight of children caring for disabled relatives.
It follows the recent case of Deanne Asamoah - a 13-year-old girl who died from an overdose of morphine.
It emerged she had been caring for her terminally ill mother for four years.
The Princess Royal Trust for Carers says tens of thousands of children struggle to provide care to ill or elderly people with little or no help.
Deanne fell into a coma and died after swallowing seven morphine tablets three days after her 13th birthday.
Doctors placed her on a life-support machine but it was switched off after tests revealed that she was brain dead.
At the inquest into her death last month the coroner said he would write to Beverley Hughes, the Children's Minister, asking why it was that up to 750 young people in Deane's home town of Milton Keynes were struggling to cope with such heavy responsibilities.
It is estimated that there are 175,000 young carers in the UK.
Alex Fox, assistant director of the Princess Royal Trust, said local authorities often failed to spot the problem.
"Children's services and adults' services are completely separate entities in local councils, so you might have a mentally-ill parent, say, who's getting some support from mental health services, but often those practitioners think things to do with parenting and children are beyond their remit.
"So they often don't ask basic questions like 'do you have children and can we help you in your parenting role?' "
Deanne went to a project for young Carers in Milton Keynes called Carers Bucks.
Her friend Hannah, who visited her when she was in a coma in hospital, also makes use of the facility.
Hannah's mother had meningitis and suffers memory loss and has fits, and she says her father is part-paraplegic and weighs 18 stone (114kg).
She has been the main carer since 2001 - she has just turned 17.
"If you think about it all at once and you think about all the different stresses you have - like school, home situation - then you just collapse - you can't get up again.
"So you've got to take it bit by bit. I just sit down and I'll cry myself to sleep until I sleep.
"But no matter how much you cry it will never go away, it's still there when you get up in the morning - so you've just got to take it day by day, I suppose."
Ms Hughes said the government had overseen a closer integration of caring services, designed to give every family an appropriate level of care.
However, she said the circumstances in some families were complex and difficult.
"I accept that the level of support in some cases is falling short of what should be there.
"They [young carers] should not have to miss their childhood."
Tim Loughton, the shadow health minister, said: "These young carers make an invaluable contribution to society and greatly reduce the burden on the state.
"In return it is critical that the government develop policies which ensure they lead fulfilling and emotionally stable childhoods and have the necessary help to succeed at school."
Chancellor Gordon Brown has announced a national review of carers will take place later this year.