Open Eye: Out today, the report that asks: Who cares for young carers?

Children find it difficult to make their needs known, says a new report which draws on OU research. Yvonne Cook reports
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Children who have to care for sick relatives may be affected by the experience for the rest of their lives, according to new research by the Open University's Young Carers Research Project in conjunction with the Children's Society.

Their report, On Small Shoulders, officially launched today (March 4) at the House of Commons, says that acting as carers can have a long- term impact on a child's education, health, self-esteem and ability to form relationships.

It calls for a national strategy to address the needs of current young carers to lessen the impact in later life, and for more support for former young carers.

Government has already taken on board some of the issues raised in the report, with the announcement in February of a package of support for carers of all ages, and official acknowledgement of the particular needs of young carers.

The OU research involved in the report was carried out by Dr Stan Tucker, senior lecturer in children and young people, and researcher Chris Tatum, and follows on an earlier one on the lives of young carers, covered in Open Eye in September.

Says Chris: "The intention of producing this latest report is to learn from the experience of former young carers, and bring about significant levels of improvement in the provision and quality of services to young carers today.

"The recent government strategy document, Caring for Carers, is a welcome contribution to the debate. It is a first step in the right direction."

Today's report by the OU and Children's Society says that former young carers need special support to help them take up educational and vocational opportunities they missed because of their caring responsibilities.

Other recommendations to help former young carers including counselling, self-help groups, and the opportunity to influence future policy development.

There are estimated to be around 51,000 young people in the country involved in various caring roles, but until recently very little was known of their lives.

Research by the OU and others has highlighted their situation and is now feeding into national policy and practice.

The report identifies the lack of a culture of listening to children in the UK, and says that, as a result, they find it difficult to make their needs known to society, including schools and welfare agencies.

The long-term effects of being a young carer include social exclusion - young carers become cut off from friends and social activities, which affects their ability to form relationships later in life.

Health and physical problems were mentioned by 28 per cent of former carers questioned in the report. These included backache, nutritional problems and conditions exacerbated by stress such as epilepsy and ulcers. Depression and other mental and psychological conditions were common.

More than 70 percent said their education had been affected by their caring responsibilities. Despite this 'many did not necessarily view education as a lost cause' and some had succeeded in returning to study later in life. The experience also influenced career choice with nearly half those interviewed saying they had opted for a career in a caring profession because they felt confident they had the skills.

Children and their families often concealed their situation for various reasons, including shame, and fear of the child being taken away from home. Many young carers find the strength to speak out about their problems only many years later.

Key to the report's recommendations is that policies to help current carers overcome these problems should be based on acknowledging their roles and giving them and their families a voice. It calls for more involvement from schools, GPs and statutory and voluntary agencies, and more resources.

On Small Shoulders is available from the publishing department of The Children's Society, Edward Rudolf House, Margery Street, London WC1X 0JL, tel. 0171 841 4415. Price pounds 5.95 plus postage and packing.