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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
Hidden army of young carers
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Young Carers Festival 4
Letting their hair down: Young Carers Festival 4
Glastonbury is not the only festival worth going to in the summer. If you're anything like 15-year-old John Cameron then a very large and thankfully dry field near Southampton is the place to be.

Glasgow-born John was one of some 1,700 children and teenagers who were getting the weekend off from what can be a full-time job: Looking after parents who can't do it for themselves.

In John's case, he has been what is officially described as a young carer since his father was brain damaged in an accident six years ago.

His responsibilities grew when his mother had a nervous breakdown after the trauma.

The fourth national Young Carers Festival, jointly organised by the Children's Society and YMCA, was the first weekend off in a long time for John.

John Cameron, 15
John Cameron: Frustrated by government
"Even though at the back of my mind I know I haven't, it just feels that I have always been a young carer," he says.

"I get up, sort out the pills for mum, sort out pills for dad, give them to them, help my Dad into the shower, shower him, get showered myself, get dressed, go to school, come home, help with the dinner and washing up, try and have half an hour for myself and go to bed."

John says he is determined to become a lawyer. He is clever and confident enough to get there - but he worries the hours he has to put in, with an aunt and uncle in support, may deny him the chance.

He does not resent his situation, but blames social services for not doing more to help.

"I try to get to do the homework in that half an hour but most of the time I don't.

"That gets me into trouble at school but I think the teachers don't understand the situation that young carers are in."

Census figures

Caring is everything from the intensive support offered by John through to more simple tasks such as communicating for profoundly deaf relatives.

Young carers speak out and demand change.

But what it amounts to is a role reversal as these young people have to grow up and learn responsibility far more quickly.

The Department of Health had thought there were 32,000 young carers in the UK. The 2001 census found 175,000.

Some 13,000 are providing more than 50 hours of help a week, including nearly 1,000 children between five and seven years old. The most common age for a young carer is between 12 and 14.

Julie McLarnon of the Children's Society says that while the law recognises young carers, the system does not take them into account.

"When social services make care assessments, they don't take a whole family approach," she says.

"They will assess the needs of the parent in isolation but not the needs of the child. The irony is that young carers will often identify the things social services need to do."

The deep rooted cultural shift we need to see is in regarding young people as citizens themselves
Bill Badham, National Youth Agency
Inevitably, says Ms McLarnon, limited resources means that children and teenagers, along with other family members, fill in the gaps to their own detriment.

One of the hardest hit groups are those aged 16 and 17 who studying hard but cannot claim home care benefits given to those over 18.

Claire Hilton, 17, of Droitwich, says she had to choose between her family and school when her father became terminally ill.

The price was she stayed down a year and missed her GCSEs.

"That was just extra added stress," says Claire. "I was treated like a child who skives off school.

"My GCSEs took a back seat for my family which was the most important thing.

"It's made me a stronger person but it could have been avoided."

Research by Loughborough University suggests more than a third of older children in caring roles suffer in similar circumstances.

Citizenship rights

Young carers in England are looking to the newly created minister for children, Margaret Hodge, to improve the way schools treat them.

YOUNG CARERS BY AGE
5-7: 6,565
8-9: 9,524
10-11: 19,165
12-14: 53, 892
15: 24,800
16-17: 61,051
Total: 174,997
Source: Census 2001

Barely into her ministerial seat, she sent apologies for not attending the festival and said she would be looking into their concerns.

But many who work with children say the best place government could start is the much broader issue of the rights of the young - including a Children's Commissioner, as has happened under devolution in Wales and is expected in Scotland.

Experts such as Bill Badham of the National Youth Agency are waiting to see if this is included in the forthcoming green paper on children.

"Education is currently about getting a future job, rather than the development and fulfilment as children now," he says.

"The deep rooted cultural shift we need to see is in regarding young people as citizens themselves.

"If that sounds rather grandiose, we only have to look at the change we have seen over the last 100 years in the position and status of women," says Mr Badham.

"In young carers, you find a maturity of experience and depth that is astounding. They deliver their stories and concerns with clarity and without sentimentalism.

"Those who are most on the edge, are the most impassioned about seeking change. They are very clear about the issues they face and what they want to see done."




SEE ALSO:
The trials of a student carer
15 Mar 03  |  Education


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