Mummy’s selfless saviours: Meet some of Britain’s growing army of child carers

At 12-year-old Jaiden Adonteng’s school there are three levels of ‘sanctions’ for bad behaviour. Stage 1 gets you a ten-minute detention, he explains. Stage 2 means detention for half an hour, and Stage 3 is a full hour.

‘I get mostly S1s and S2s,’ he says.

What warrants such a punishment? Mostly, it’s using his phone during school, when the rules say it must be turned off.

Sometimes he gets detention for not finishing his homework. Homework, he confirms, isn’t always his priority.

So is Jaiden just another young tearaway? If he is, he’s an unusual one. He tells me he actually quite likes school, and has ambitions to be ‘either a poet, or a politician, or maybe a scientist. I haven’t entirely decided yet’.

Jaiden Adonteng, 12, who lives alone with his mother Sheila (pictured) in South London is responsible for ensuring his mother takes her medication and completing household chores including the groceries

Jaiden Adonteng, 12, who lives alone with his mother Sheila (pictured) in South London is responsible for ensuring his mother takes her medication and completing household chores including the groceries

Jaiden Adonteng, 12, who lives alone with his mother Sheila (pictured) in South London is responsible for ensuring his mother takes her medication and completing household chores including the groceries 

The explanation for why he chooses (some might argue ‘needs’ is a better word) to use his phone in school sheds a very different light on his behaviour. Jaiden is a young carer.

He lives alone with his mother Sheila in South London. Sheila suffers from lupus, a debilitating auto-immune disease that makes her often housebound.

While Sheila has paid carers who come in during the day to feed and tend to her, she needs more assistance than that.

Jaiden plugs a rather large gap, rising at 6am every day to feed the family’s cats, make sure his mum takes her medication, and help her get up. He doesn’t usually have time for breakfast (‘I give him money to get a cereal bar on the way,’ says Sheila).

When he gets home, generally around 5pm after a lengthy train journey, he does the chores his mother cannot: dishes, vacuuming, dusting and taking out the rubbish (his ‘least favourite thing’). He then irons his school uniform.

Since his mum can’t get to the shops, Jaiden does the grocery shopping too. He’s done this for years, so supermarket staff don’t often question why a 12-year-old boy is doing a full weekly shop. ‘Sometimes, if it’s after dark, they’ll say “where is your mum or dad?” but not in the day.’

Jaiden’s parents are not together, although his dad lives nearby and does provide some support.

So each evening, Jaiden helps his mother get ready for bed, fetching medication and hooking her up to an oxygen machine for the night (she has sleep apnoea which could cause her to stop breathing).

Jessica Barre,seven, who lives with her mum Angelika, 36, (pictured) and dad Steve, 46, in Shrewsbury has learnt what to do when her mother has seizures

Jessica Barre,seven, who lives with her mum Angelika, 36, (pictured) and dad Steve, 46, in Shrewsbury has learnt what to do when her mother has seizures

Jessica Barre,seven, who lives with her mum Angelika, 36, (pictured) and dad Steve, 46, in Shrewsbury has learnt what to do when her mother has seizures

If she is in particular pain, he can sit for hours just holding her hand. This causes her a different sort of pain, though. ‘I feel bad,’ says Sheila. ‘Sometimes when he has done all the things he needs to do, there is not time for his homework, so he does it in school. I am worried about him. But what option do we have?’

Jaiden lives in fear of his mother having a ‘bad turn’. He says he runs to the shops ‘because what if something happens to her when I am away?’. At school he frets. He likes to phone his mum often, ‘just to check she is OK’. Some teachers turn a blind eye, he confides. Others, less so.

‘I don’t think they believe me. I think they think I’m just using her as an excuse to use my phone. I don’t know,’ he says.

Unpaid support 

There are around 7 million carers in the UK — one in ten people. And three in five people will be carers at some point in their lives

His aim now is simply to contain the situation so his mother will not be troubled. ‘They have asked her to come down to the school, but I’m trying to avoid that,’ he says. ‘It wouldn’t be easy for her to get there.’

Is he resentful of the responsibility he is shouldering, though, or angry about his mum’s situation? Not a bit of it. ‘She’s the best mum in the world,’ he tells me.

‘Looking after her is no problem. It’s more difficult when she has to go into hospital. That’s worse.’

Jaiden’s situation is an all too common one. There are an estimated 800,000 carers under 17 in Britain today, or roughly two children in every classroom.

They perform a vital role — it’s reckoned that unpaid carers save the country around £132 billion a year, enough to fund a second NHS.

And their number of child carers is estimated to have increased by 100,000 since 2010, with growing evidence many are failing to cope.

Sheila revealed at times Jaiden (pictured) gets depressed, her older son Edward who once did the bulk of the domestic chores had a breakdown before going to university

Sheila revealed at times Jaiden (pictured) gets depressed, her older son Edward who once did the bulk of the domestic chores had a breakdown before going to university

Sheila revealed at times Jaiden (pictured) gets depressed, her older son Edward who once did the bulk of the domestic chores had a breakdown before going to university 

According to Government figures from the NHS Long Term Plan, each young carer spends around 30 hours a week on their ‘duties’ — as much as some full-time workers — and 73 per cent are forced to take time off school.

Up to 40 per cent experience mental health problems, with higher levels of depression and self-harm.

Sheila is only too aware that the pressure on her youngest child is immense. ‘Jaiden gets depressed,’ she says. She has another son, Edward, 18. Until recently, he took on the bulk of the domestic chores. Then it all became too much.

‘He’s fine now. He’s just gone off to university, but before, he had a breakdown.’ Sheila realised that the family had reached crisis point when Jaiden told her Edward was crying in the kitchen.

‘I said leave the dishes, come and watch a movie,’ she recalls. ‘He said he had school work to do.’

Later, she found Edward in the bathroom with a knife. ‘I don’t know what he was doing, but he was bleeding. He was upset. He wanted to do something . . .’

Social services have been involved with the family and they have also been helped by a charity called Honeypot — which has received funding from investment firm Bank of America Merrill Lynch — which offers children like Jaiden respite holidays and contact with other young carers.

Edward was honest with his mum about the pressures he was under. ‘He couldn’t go out with his friends. Some were making fun of him. He had his A-levels, and he was just trying to do too much. It got on top of him.’

Sheila's family have received help from a charity called Honeypot which works with children aged as young as five

Sheila's family have received help from a charity called Honeypot which works with children aged as young as five

Sheila’s family have received help from a charity called Honeypot which works with children aged as young as five 

Honeypot’s chief executive Simmi Woodwal says the family’s situation is pretty typical. So too is Jaiden’s outwardly can-do attitude.

‘These kids are not complainers,’ she says. ‘To them what they are doing is completely normal. Yet it isn’t a normal situation.’

Shockingly, Honeypot works with children aged as young as five — too young, Simmi points out, even to be officially recognised as carers.

‘Official recognition starts at eight, but I can assure you that by this stage, some children have been carers for several years.

‘People don’t believe that children that young can be carers, not in any meaningful way, but our evidence tells a very different story.’

So, why the huge leap in the number of child carers? It is partly down to more recognition that these children exist.

But charities also insist austerity measures have squeezed all manner of support services — leaving children to pick up the pieces. Child services have been slashed by up to a third in some areas. Undoubtedly Honeypot, which is funded by charitable donations, does great work.

Simmi says: ‘We offer holidays to children who have never seen the sea, never been to a beach, never had a holiday of any description.

‘Most have had to grow up very quickly, and sometimes they don’t behave like children.

Jaiden (pictured right) who says many of his friends at school don't understand his situation has met a lot of new friends through Honeypot

Jaiden (pictured right) who says many of his friends at school don't understand his situation has met a lot of new friends through Honeypot

Jaiden (pictured right) who says many of his friends at school don’t understand his situation has met a lot of new friends through Honeypot

‘One of the most striking things for me was watching them after a meal. They all leapt up to clear their plates, because they are used to doing everything at home.

‘Our job is to allow them to be children again, which can be quite difficult. We never want to force them to play games, for instance, because some might not want to do that.

‘One girl recently just took herself off with a book. It turned out that at home, she never had the time or the space to do that.’

Jaiden says: ‘I’ve met a lot of new friends through Honeypot.

‘Mostly other children don’t really get it. My friends from school will ask why I can’t go on the Xbox. They don’t really understand.’

Child carers often try to keep their situation secret, either because they fear bullying, or they don’t want to be pitied or deemed different. Finding them at all in order to offer help is the first problem to be tackled.

Most are identified through local GP services or, more commonly, schools. In acute cases, social services should be involved — as they were with Lauren Hughes, who is now 19 and lives in Carmarthen. When her home situation became untenable (her mother had mental health issues, and has attempted to commit suicide), they offered a safety net.

‘I don’t know what I would have done without them. The social worker gave me the option of leaving, but I didn’t want to leave my mum. She needed me. But my own mental health was being affected. I was depressed and couldn’t see any way out.’

Angelika (pictured left) who has up to 30 seizures a day began preparing Jessica for her seizures from an early age, in one instance Jessica witnessed her falling into glass

Angelika (pictured left) who has up to 30 seizures a day began preparing Jessica for her seizures from an early age, in one instance Jessica witnessed her falling into glass

Angelika (pictured left) who has up to 30 seizures a day began preparing Jessica for her seizures from an early age, in one instance Jessica witnessed her falling into glass

Incredibly, Lauren had managed to get through her GCSEs despite a desperate situation at home, including being evicted at one stage. Still, few people at school knew the reality. ‘You are ashamed. You don’t want to tell people. I felt really alone.’

Lauren was offered mentoring by the Prince’s Trust. She is now at university, studying drama.

‘My mum is much better, but I do look back and think: “How did I get through that?”.’

The stories of some of the youngest carers are astonishing; their daily burdens jaw-dropping.

Jessica Barre is seven. She lives with her mum Angelika, 36, and dad Steve, 46, in Shrewsbury.

It is clearly a supportive home, but Angelika has severe epilepsy and has up to 30 seizures a day, ranging from momentary lapses in consciousness to full-blown, life-threatening attacks. ‘With the big ones, I can really hurt myself,’ Angelika says.

‘In the past, Jessica has witnessed me falling into glass, for example. I might damage my fingernails, bending them back, or bang my head or arms. There is no way of knowing when I will have one, or what impact it will have.’

A seizure can be terrifying for an adult to see, never mind a child, but Angelika started to prepare Jessica from an early age.

‘It sounds a very drastic approach, but we tried to “normalise” it as much as possible, even while she was a baby.

Angelika has taught Jessica (pictured) to go and seek help, even if it's from a stranger if something happens to her

Angelika has taught Jessica (pictured) to go and seek help, even if it's from a stranger if something happens to her

Angelika has taught Jessica (pictured) to go and seek help, even if it’s from a stranger if something happens to her 

‘We didn’t protect her from it — quite the opposite, in fact. If I was having a seizure, my husband Steve would go to get her so she could witness it.

‘We reckoned it was better for her to see it when she was with someone, when she knew she was safe.

‘It’s still scary for her sometimes — we’ve had situations where she will curl up in the corner and just cry while it is going on — but she also knows what to expect and she knows to run next door to get a neighbour, and to call her dad.

‘We have a list of instructions on the fridge. We also have a panic button at home that she knows to press. Then help is on its way.’

For Jessica, being a carer isn’t about doing dishes or shopping, it is a life-or-death responsibility. Understandably, Angelika frets that Jessica has had to grow up too quickly.

‘I look at her friends and they seem cautious in comparison. When it comes to even basic things like crossing the road, most parents err on the side of being too protective. I have to be the opposite, because if I have a seizure in the middle of the road, Jessica has to know how to get to the other side safely. Both our lives might depend on it.

‘Most people teach their children not to talk to strangers. Jessica has been taught that if something happens to me, she should go and seek help, even if it’s from a stranger. It’s going to be more dangerous for her not to ask people.’

Angelika (pictured left with Jessica and Steve) revealed aspects of her epilepsy affects her memory and at times she can't remember trips to the park or time with Jessica's grandparents

Angelika (pictured left with Jessica and Steve) revealed aspects of her epilepsy affects her memory and at times she can't remember trips to the park or time with Jessica's grandparents

Angelika (pictured left with Jessica and Steve) revealed aspects of her epilepsy affects her memory and at times she can’t remember trips to the park or time with Jessica’s grandparents

Jessica also takes on daily duties far beyond the norm for a seven-year-old. After a big seizure, Angelika will suffer massive exhaustion, to the point where normal life becomes untenable.

‘Jessica knows that when this happens, I just need to sleep, and she’s brilliant at taking herself off with a book.’

One of the most distressing aspects of Angelika’s epilepsy is that it affects her memory, sometimes wiping it completely.

‘Even if I’m only unconscious for seconds, I will often forget what I’ve been saying or doing, and she’s really patient about explaining it all to me.

‘My heart breaks for her. There are swathes of our life together — trips to the park, or things we did with her grandparents — that I just don’t remember. It’s a lot to carry on her shoulders.’

Jessica too has made new friends who are young carers through Honeypot, and her parents say that being able to send her on trips — ‘to let her get out into the open air’ — is life-changing.

‘After one of the first ones, I asked if she missed me. She said she was too busy having fun. That was the best thing I could possibly have heard.’

For more information about Honeypot, go to honeypot.org.uk