Late one night 22-year-old Maya received a phone call – her four siblings aged between two and 15 were being taken away from her parents because her Dad had been arrested and her mother was drinking heavily. Could the kids stay with her, social services wanted to know? “I said yes of course they can,” Maya told them.
“I didn’t know what had happened, just that Dad was locked up and Mum was at home. Then we had to go to court and things, and they’re both not allowed to have the children.”
Maya is now the primary carer for all four children. She has had to give up her hospitality training and all she has time for is a part time job at a café.
She is one of thousands of young people who have put their lives on hold to care for child relatives, often because of family break down and trauma. But we hear and know little about them, and welfare support is promoted more at grandparent carers rather than young carers struggling to build lives.
“They are a completely hidden group, but what is becoming clear is that they are an extremely vulnerable group,” says University of Melbourne health researcher Dr Meredith Kiraly from the Department of Social Work. With the support of the Sidney Myer Foundation, she is carrying out the first Australia-wide study of the impact of kinship care on young people by using census data and interviewing young carers like Maya.
“The research shows that children benefit from being cared for by family rather than being fostered out, but it can come at the expense of the carer. My interviews are telling us that young kinship carers are paying a big price in terms delayed education and careers, as well as constrained work opportunities that typically leave them struggling with poverty,” says Dr Kiraly.
HELP FOCUSED ON GRANDPARENTS
“The focus of kinship care policy and research has been largely on grandparent care in the belief grandparent care and kinship care are virtually synonymous. Less attention has been given to other relatives who step in at times of crisis.”
Dr Kiraly’s analysis of census data has for the first time given us an idea of the extent of the issue. She identified 45,283 households that included children but where neither parent was resident. In over 20 per cent of these, or close to 10,000, the primary carers were aged 30 or under. Some 47 per cent were aged 31-59, and 31 per cent were aged 60 or more.
While much public attention has been focused on the plight of grandparents having to shoulder childcare duties in looking after their grandchildren, Dr Kiraly says it is clear significant numbers of young carers have to look after their siblings or nieces, nephews and cousins, not to mention their own children. And stories like Maya’s aren’t uncommon. Dr Kiraly is finding a pattern of carers having to sacrifice their education and careers.
Another of Dr Kiraly’s interview subjects, Rosie, 27, found herself the primary carer for her two brothers because of her mother’s worsening bi-polar disorder. She and her partner already had two young children, one of whom has a disability. To make it work she has given up her studies on interior design.
Olivia 29, gave up her career as an office manager when her brother’s substance abuse meant she had to take over the care of her niece and nephew, on top of looking after her seven-year-old daughter.
Delayed education and careers
“Almost every young woman I’ve interviewed has had arrested education,” says Dr Kiraly, who is finding a pattern of the oldest daughter in families having to take on caring responsibilities when families break down. “It is good for the children because they get to stay with their families, but there is a cost on the carer.”
“The child caring responsibilities these young people are taking on are a real barrier in terms of education and work, so an obvious area of policy reform is to make it easier for them to access support for child care. This would be a simple way to make them less dependent on welfare and build a good future for themselves and the children they are bringing up. When you talk to them you realise they are very keen to continue with their own education and get a job, but they need support to get there.”
So far Dr Kiraly has interviewed 15 young carers, but she says they are a difficult group to contact because they are often isolated from each other and there is no representative support or lobby group for them. “Usually with this sort of research you can rely on someone knowing someone else with the problem you are investigating, but among young kinship carers this isn’t the case. They are on their own.”
Consulting researcher Professor Cathy Humphreys from the University of Melbourne’s School of Health Sciences, says the lack of recognition means young kinship carers are missing out on government support because it either isn’t targeted at them or they are often unaware of what is available.
For example, the Centrelink Grandparent Child Care Benefit provides for up to 50 hours of free child care per week to eligible grandparent carers, but not to other kinship carers. Centrelink also has six Grandparent Advisors providing support for grandparents caring for their grandchildren. While these Advisors will also assist other kinship carers, their title does nothing to advertise this. There are no services specifically aimed at young kinship carers.
“All the support systems are set up for grandparents or those caring for people with disabilities, so it isn’t easy to navigate for young kinship carers with very complex lives,” says Professor Humphreys. “It’s not an active exclusion, but they are an unrecognised group.”
Research needed to inform policy
Professor Humphreys says understanding the specific needs of young kinship carers will be critical if support is to be better targeted at them. She said the results of the research could directly inform any review of carers policy. Such a review, she says, is urgently needed to ensure that carers aren’t being disadvantaged in what is a critical period of their lives when most young people are focused on building independent lives, relationships and careers.
“Young kinship carers are stepping up and saving the community a lot of funding and responsibility, but they are also being significantly disadvantaged, so we need to better understand that disadvantage if we are to address it.”
Dr Kiraly is seeking young kinship carers aged 30 or under to participate in her study. Participants can be living anywhere in Australia. They must be the primary carers of young siblings, nephews, nieces, other young relatives or other children from their community. Interview will take about one hour and participants will receive a $50 gift voucher. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Names have been changed and some details altered in this article to protect the identities of study participants.
Banner Image: green kozi/Flickr.