Independent Appeal: The children who grow up before they are ready

Looking after an ill or disabled parent can cause fear and isolation. Jonathan Brown reports on a charity that offers hope

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The Independent Online

Stacey Cuddy can remember when she realised her childhood was over.

She was 12 years old. It had been a typical day: getting up, cleaning the house from top to bottom, making a meal for her alcoholic mother and deciding whether she could afford to buy food or pay to have the heating on.

She had just made the half-hour walk to the nearest shops from her home in inner-city Leeds, she recalls. "The bags always used to cut into my fingers they were so heavy. It was dark when I got home. No one ever used to ask why I was walking around on my own with all this shopping in the pitch black. It was a rough area and there were lots of strange people about. But I was just worried about whether mum would be alive when I got home," she says. "That was what made me feel like an adult. I feel like I have been an adult for seven years now."

Stacey is part of Britain's growing army of young carers and one of an estimated 5,000 in her home city alone. For the fanatical young Leeds United supporter the prospect of finding her mother in distress or worse when she returned from school each day was all too real.

"One time I remember trying to get back in the house but I couldn't open the door because mum was laid in front of it on the floor. She had been trying to get out but had fallen and was jammed behind it. I had to smash the window to get in." Stacey had to borrow £100 to pay the landlord to fix it. "I went without something to eat for a while until I had paid it back," she says.

Stacey's mother, Mary, suffered from agoraphobia and anxiety since giving birth to her youngest daughter. With a 13-year gap between her and her brothers Stacey grew up effectively an only child. By the time Stacey was four, her mother had given up her job as a care assistant. Five years later Stacey's father walked out. Aged just nine, the little girl was left to cope as best she could alone.

By now, when she could get out of bed, Mary was drinking three or four bottles of wine a day. She would cry most of the time and seemed oblivious to the world around her.

"I had to help her to survive," says Stacey, who is now 19. "When dad left us he didn't get in touch for a year and a half. I wished at the time that he took me with him but now I am glad he didn't. If he had, my mum wouldn't be alive now." She admits it was hard hearing other children playing in the streets outside.

"I thought why does it have to be my mum that is like this? I used to feel embarrassed but I thought, she is my mum and I have got to do this. But I would never walk out on her. I knew how important it was that I was there. I had to build courage and carry on," she says.

Like a lot of young carers Stacey's school work suffered. "Sometimes I never went. I got bullied in Year 7 so I thought I would stay with mum. I didn't tell and that was why I nearly got kicked out. I don't think they believed me. No one believes an 11-year-old when they say they are looking after an adult," she says. It can be a lonely existence for young people juggling household budgets, homework and care needs. "I didn't want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to do my own thing. I just used to play my own games, watch TV and do homework," says Stacey. "I didn't fit in with anyone. I was my own person. I felt like I was an adult and I didn't want to be with all these childish kids."

But there were no adults on hand to turn to either. "Mum's friends were all drunks. They were all in the same situation. We didn't have any neighbours. People were always coming and going. There were drug raids on the street and a lot of the houses were empty," she says.

Her mother's problems felt like a "black hole" to her. "You can have some good days and you can have some bad days but the good days aren't really good – they are just better than the bad ones," she says. "I cried a couple of times but I thought, this won't get me anywhere – no one will see me. Crying is not going to change what has happened."

But luckily for Stacey things did get better when one day at college she spotted a poster for Willow Young Carers, a project run by Barnardo's in Leeds, one of three charities being supported by Independent readers' donations in this year's Christmas Appeal.

Encouraged by a member of staff at her school to fill out a form and deliver it in person she was astonished at the warmth of the reception she received. "They asked me in for a cup of coffee. To me that felt like they were my friends already. That person didn't even know me and I could have been anyone," she says.

Established 15 years ago, Willow works with 120 young people at any one time, talking to them, building their confidence for the future and crucially making them realise they are not alone. "They can feel very isolated from their peers and feel that no one is in that situation. They want to meet other young carers and when they do that experience can be really empowering for them," explains service manager Sylvia Shatwell.

Sometimes young people are reluctant to seek help fearing they may be taken into care. They may be forced to lift heavy adults or provide intimate washes. They can be required to cope with mental or physical illness of a parent or sibling. It can be a slow and creeping condition such as multiple sclerosis or sudden and devastating such as a brain injury.

No two situations are identical, no two backgrounds the same. Some young people are incredibly proud of what they achieve and do well at school. Others suffer in silence. For all however, it is a childhood in which ultimate responsibility for another human being is thrust unsought.

It is now nearly three years since Mary, 52, stopped drinking. She still has paranoid anxiety attacks but does occasionally venture out shopping with her daughter. Stacey plans to go to university and study criminology but will still care for her mother. "I wouldn't say she was a bad mum. I just don't think she knew she was doing it. Now she can't thank me enough. She praises me all the time and is there for me when I need her. I'd like to keep hold of her for as long as possible," she says.

"Willow filled that black hole. It was like even if I had fallen into it I would land on a big cushion or mattress and bounce back up again. You have to bounce back. If you let the small things harm you the big things would kill you."

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand.

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes.