Alicia, 19, describes herself as a “grinch” when it comes to Christmas. It’s not because she objects to people enjoying themselves, but because, as someone who had caring responsibilities from a very young age, she doesn’t have happy memories of childhood Christmases. “To me Christmas is just another day,” she says.
It’s a sentiment that a lot of young carers would recognise. For children who find themselves in the position of looking after parents or other relatives from a young age, the responsibility of doing housework or providing emotional support, often combined with money problems, means that normal childhood pleasures are unavailable. This is particularly the case at Christmas. As Sarah Wayman, campaign manager for The Children’s Society, says, many families are “struggling to keep the heating on, let alone have gifts abounding or boxes of Quality Street everywhere”.
Young carers are one of the many groups of vulnerable children supported by The Children’s Society. There are 800,000 young carers aged between five and 17 in the UK, and their responsibilities can range from cooking dinner to taking a sibling to school or dealing with a parent’s medication. Charlie, now 25, grew up caring for his mother, who had multiple sclerosis, and his many tasks included giving her intramuscular injections to keep her condition under control. Sometimes he missed school because he hadn’t slept two nights in a row, and he often fell behind with schoolwork. It was “really hit and miss as to whether teachers would be accepting or accommodating,” he says.
Luckily, Charlie was able to find support by joining a young carers’ group, and that led him to The Children’s Society’s Young Carers programme. This proved transformative, helping to put him on a path to university, where he studied health and social care.
Central to The Children’s Society approach is an emphasis on consulting children and young people on the challenges they face and the campaigns for action they would like to see. It was one of these consultations, seven years ago, with a group of children who had grown up in poverty, that led to the #CutTheCost campaign for cheaper school uniforms. Alicia, who had become involved in The Children’s Society through its annual Young Carers’ Festival, felt a personal connection to the campaign. At her school, the uniform was “quite bespoke and expensive, so coming from a single-parent household it was really hard to afford”. She wore the same uniform from year 7 to 11, and, with a few months left of school, was told her skirt was too short and she had to buy a new one – even though £30 for a skirt was out of her reach.
A determined campaign by The Children’s Society and young activists led to widespread media coverage and public support and later a private member’s bill, proposed by Mike Amesbury MP, was passed compelling schools in England to prioritise cost when setting uniform policies. Alicia was on work experience with The Children’s Society’s public affairs team while the bill was having its second reading, and was able to help by organising the speaker’s notes and press briefings and talking to MPs. The bill was passed in April this year. Yet until they asked children about their concerns, The Children’s Society had no idea that the cost of school uniforms was an issue young people experienced most keenly, says Wayman.
It was a similar story in 2015, when the charity consulted care leavers about which debts affected them most. “We were expecting them to talk about credit card debt or utility bills,” says Wayman, “but actually the debt that care leavers were telling us about was council tax debt.” Many had been unaware of council tax until they started receiving bills for “huge amounts of money” – followed, in some cases, by a court summons. “Non-payment of council tax is something you could be sent to prison for,” Wayman points out. And so began the Fighting for a fairer start campaign to exempt young adult care leavers from the tax. Supporters wrote to councils and care leavers spoke at council meetings. As a result, 80% of councils in England, and all the councils in Wales and Scotland, now waive council tax for care leavers.
Other campaigns are ongoing. Distress Signals, led by a group of young people, aims to make it law that every unaccompanied young person navigating the immigration system has a guardian who is legally responsible for guiding them through the process. The group has already made a 10-minute documentary about the issue and handed in a petition to the government with 21,000 signatories. “It’s so powerful because these young people have already been through the system,” says Wayman. “They’re not doing this for them. They’re doing this for the young people who they see arriving in this country without anyone now.”
Sarah Wayman, campaign manager for The Children’s Society
For children in vulnerable situations, such as poverty, or a violent home, this time of year can feel especially hard. Eighteen-year-olds who have just left care may be in their own home for the first time and, because many support initiatives stop over the festive season, says Wayman, they can feel “incredibly lonely”.
Yet a brighter future is possible. Charlie’s involvement in The Children’s Society’s Young Carers programme turned his life around and he now works for The Children’s Society full-time. Alicia is a manager in the retail sector but continues to campaign on children’s issues. Her dream is to work in children’s human rights policy, and she believes her own experience will enable her to help others in a similar situation: “To have someone in their corner who’s been through it and has come out the other side – I’d really like to do that for other people.”
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