More than 800 children under the age of four are acting as unpaid family carers due to chronic long-term State service gaps.
The shocking situation is reported in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs’ latest State of the Nation’s Children Report, which highlights the reality of growing up in Ireland.
According to the 260- page document, available at irishexaminer.com, 6,449 children and teens aged up to 17 are classed as providing unpaid care for their family.
This is defined as “regular unpaid personal help for a friend or family member with a long-term illness, health problem or disability”. It includes looking after sick relatives and family members with disabilities, and caring for other siblings in some form, because public services meant to be provided by the State are patchy or non-existent.
Of this group, 1,035 child carers are between the ages of five and nine, 2,390 are aged 10 to 14 and 2,221 are aged 15 to 17.
There are also 803 children under the age of four providing some form of care to family members.
While no county breakdown is available, children are most likely to have to help care for relatives in Leitrim (66 children, or 8.2 per 1,000), Kerry (272, 7.8 per 1,000), Cork (807, 6.3 per 1,000) and Limerick (305, 6.6 per 1,000).
In Dublin, 1,341 (4.7 per 1,000) children are providing the service. The lowest level of 4.3 per 1,000 is in Louth, where 143 children have t to help out.
Carers Association spokeswoman Catherine Cox told the Irish Examiner the under-four figures are “quite shocking” and the child and teen carer levels are likely to be an under- representation of true rates.
She said: “The lowest age group may be linked to single-parent families where another child has special needs and the sibling is asked to keep them occupied, but it’s still quite shocking to hear.
“There’s no doubt there needs to be a commitment from Government for more help for young carers, because that figure could be a lot higher.
“It should never be the case that a young person has no option than to care for a parent or sibling.”
Ms Cox said that while the State is aware of the impact caring can have on a child’s education and social development, little progress is being made.
She said the Carers Association recently appointed Ireland’s first young carer development officer, with financial aid from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In Scotland, which has a similar demographic, there are already 20 young carer development officers in place to provide specialised help.
The State of the Nation’s Children report, which is held every two years and provides a snapshot of childhood in Ireland, found similar figures for child carers at the height of the economic boom.
In Mar 2006, UCC research for the Combat Poverty Agency, which has since been disbanded by Government, said children as young as 12 were losing out on their education as they had to care for sick parents and younger siblings.
“Being a young carer has significant, usually negative, implications for their lives and wellbeing. The areas affected include education, employment, social life, relationships and health,” the research by Joe Finnerty and Dr Cathal O’Connell warned at the time.
* Support information for young carers is available at: http://www.carersireland.com/youngcarers.php
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