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Reflections from The Children’s Society on Carers Week – Toni-Marie Smith

The Operational Coordinator for Young Carers in Focus at The Children’s Society reflects on the messages gleaned from Carers Week:

There’s always a risk when your work is young person-centred, especially when the young people – like young carers – have multiple demands on their time and are dealing with complex issues in their lives.

The risk that they drop out, or you don’t get enough interest in the first place; the risk that expectations – on all sides – are raised but not met; the risk that you won’t have the resources to meet the ambitious visions of teenagers who haven’t yet had to write project reports for funders.

‘Include’ at the Children’s Society works with young carers – anyone under 18 who cares for a family member with a physical disability, mental health issue or substance misuse issue. The latest census figures reveal the number of young carers in England to be 166,000 – but this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.

We also know that young carers, not only care for someone with ill health, but are also twice as likely as their peers to report poor health themselves – rising to five times when caring for over 50 hours per week – so health services are ideally placed to identify and support these young people and families.

After years of engaging with young carers, and after four years of the young carer ‘champion’ network led by 200 young carers across England, at the Children’s Society we have some suggestions about how you might consider including young people when commissioning and providing health services:

Allow space and resources for the work taking a slightly different direction – when young people’s voices play a major role in decision making at the strategic level, they may raise issues that were not outlined in the project plan at the outset. Build in flexibility that will allow the project to make slight reorientations to authentically address the points raised by the young people. This may feel scary at times!

Example in action – our young carer champions identified early on that talking to healthcare professionals was high on their agenda. We gave them space and support to plan and manage an event held at London Zoo where NHS staff attending were forbidden from wearing suits; made ‘pinky pledges’ to recognise young carers; and participated in ‘in my shoes’ activities created by the young people.

Make sure the young people involved gain the skills they want – it’s great if a project outcome is empowering young people. It’s even better when the project process itself empowers young people and gives them skills.

Example in action: As well as residentials throughout the year where young carers can develop emotional and practical skills, our champions have led the creation of various policy and influencing change tools that has meant they have the practical knowledge to create change in their local areas.

Make it interesting and relevant – young people don’t want to be patronised with over simplistic activities and goals that pay lip service to their genuine concerns and ideas. If you are going to involve young people – be it in a consultation, a  project or a group – make sure you ask young people why an issue matters to them, what they want to do and how they can realistically do it.

Example in action: consultations at our Young Carers Festivals are always action-packed and interactive, whether it involves art, building bridges, debates or any other idea our champions come up with. These consultations then directly impact on strategic development in multiple services, including with School Nurses and NHS services.

Although Carers Week came and went last week, why not get in touch with your local young carers group, via your local authority, and start a conversation about how young people can get involved in commissioning services?


Image of Toni-Marie SmithToni-Marie Smith is the Programme Operational Co-ordinator worker for Young Carers in Focus (YCiF) at The Children’s Society Include Programme.

She works to increase national awareness and support for young carers and their families and promote whole family working.

During her time with The Children’s Society she has also worked to build professional partnerships that will lead to early interventions for families to prevent a child taking on an inappropriate caring role; supported the running of the National Young Carers Festival and, through consultation with them and other young carers, helped to ensure young carers’ voices remain central to delivery.

Toni-Marie currently works on the Young Carers in Focus Programme, working with partners to provide Young Carers Champions with resilience, skills and knowledge to support them to raise awareness and advocate for change on a National and Local level. She is also working with the Champions to run a safe social network for all young carers and to roll out and monitor the Young Carers in Schools Programme.

Prior to this Toni-Marie gained a BSc (Hons) Psychology with Criminology from the University of Portsmouth.

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