But, despite highly publicised schemes such as Esther Rantzen's 'Golden Heart' awards, child carers prefer recognition and support, Dr Saul Becker said. But, he went on, 'it is far easier to talk about children who care as 'children of courage' rather than finding the resources to address their needs'.
In the course of two years' research in Nottingham, Dr Becker and colleagues from Loughborough University found 'evidence of children as young as three providing feeding assistance for a grandparent'. In another case a boy had missed two years of school to care alone for his father who was dying of an inoperable brain tumour, was incontinent and suffered fits of violence. Instead of providing support, 'the school authorities prosecuted the father, and then threatened to place the child in care if he did not attend school'. The situation was resolved only when the father died.
No accurate statistics exist of the numbers of child carers, but the total could exceed 10,000. Dr Becker's research found that child carers are often deprived of their childhood: 'they are fearful, isolated and excluded. They receive no payments and they are denied access to social security benefits as they are classed as children.'
Dr Becker added: 'For many, such a role can seem like a punishment. Indeed many young carers talked in terms of a punishment for something they had unwittingly done wrong.' Often the children were pitched into the role with unexpected suddenness - one girl's mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis soon after the father's sudden death and 'the unexpected change had a violent impact on the child'.
But the authorities who ought to provide support were widely regarded as doling out further punishment. 'Community care assistants - home helps - have been withdrawn from families because a young child is considered to be old enough to cope,' Dr Becker's team discovered. And in some cases, 12- year-olds have been judged 'old enough'. Social workers were regarded with fear and suspicion.