THE plight of carers as young as four years old who look after sick and troubled relatives has shocked councillors in Carmarthenshire.
Mags Williams, the council’s young carers manager, said the service helped children and young adults who often hid their problems from teachers and classmates.
She said the service was at the “crisis” end of the spectrum, and that identifying young carers in need of support was tricky in itself.
“Young people are often very sensitive about their home life, especially about mental health and substance abuse,” she said. “They’re very worried they’re going to be taken into care.”
Miss Williams said young carers were often very tired, anxious, lonely, and late for or absent from school. Some were bullied, she said, and felt angry while others displayed “challenging behaviour”.
She said: “They feel, ‘Why is this happening to me? Why can’t I have a normal family?’”
Around half those helped by the young carers and young adult carer services have relatives with mental health and/or alcohol and substance problems, while the other half have relatives with a physical disability or disease.
Miss Williams said: “The youngest we’ve had was aged four.”
This child’s parent was bed-bound, and the youngster would empty the parent’s bucket toilet and also heat up meals in the microwave to help out.
Miss Williams said the parent now received a full package of care following intervention.
Another successful case study, whose details are too graphic and shocking to report, had allowed the siblings concerned to progress into further education.
Miss Williams said in 17 years of doing the job she had never seen so many suicide attempts among young people whose lives had been affected by relatives with these range of issues and needs.
She added: “They (young carers) want to feel supported, to be understood, to be happy, to be confident and secure.”
There were also practical elements to their role, such as knowing the side-effects of medication. The average age of young carers UK-wide is 12, and one in five of them misses school.
Miss Williams and her colleagues work with other departments and organisations such as adult social services, child and adolescent mental health services, college mentors, police and the charity Crossroads Care.
The council also provides a “hidden from harm service” for young people who don’t have to be carers but whose family life is affected by alcohol and substance misuse.
Councillors from two scrutiny committees who listened to the presentation asked what they could do to support the work of the service, how the council promoted the young adult carer service in colleges, and what checks could be done if a young carer was being home educated.
Councillor Rob Evans said: “I commend the work you are doing. You are definitely saving lives.”
Bethan James, the council’s corporate parenting manager, said home education was a parental right but that the council had a duty to ensure it was safe for a child and that he or she had their educational entitlement “from a rights point of view”.
“We monitor all children who are home educated that we know of,” she said.
The difficultly, she added, was that parents did not have to notify their local authority they were home-schooling their child if that child had never been enrolled in school in the first place.
Councillor Darren Price, chairman of the education and children scrutiny committee, said: “We do have a big concern about this as a committee. We are in contact with the minister in Cardiff.
“I think the legislation is quite wishy-washy at the moment.”
Councillor Emlyn Schiavone said he felt that finding and helping young carers was a top priority.
“Why are we losing these children?” he said. “Why are they falling through the gaps. It’s incredible — it’s very sad. But I’m not throwing the blame at anybody.”
Councillor Bill Thomas said: “I was shocked that a young carer was four years old. You just can’t get your head around it.”
Councillors heard that the authority was due to introduce a new well-being strategy next year, with training for staff part of the plan, and that pupil well-being would be part of the school curriculum in two years’ time.
Ms James said: “I think it is an enormous challenge.”