The Children’s Commissioner has admitted the plight of young carers in New Zealand wasn’t on his radar until recently.
Around 40,000 Kiwis aged 15 to 25 are believed to be responsible for providing a significant level of care for family who are ill, disabled or struggling with addiction or mental health issues.
The issue was brought to light after an in-depth investigation by Sunday looked at how this hidden group of young people have been propping up their families.
New Zealand ranks bottom of the global index for young carers, with little to no awareness of the huge degree of responsibility held by these young people.
Commissioner Andrew Becroft told Breakfast that concerns about a lack of support for young carers hadn’t been raised with his office at all over the past nine years.
“I think we’re talking about an invisible army of superheroes who demonstrate daily, sacrificially, family-based committed love. To be honest … it wasn’t on my radar until recently.”
When compared to overseas, Becroft says the plight of young carers in New Zealand is concerning, with many not adequately getting the support they need.
“It’s also alarming I guess, or concerning, that other countries are doing it better than us. That England, Australia, the USA have it at the forefront.”
Researcher Lauren Donnan, who had been a young carer herself, says the number of young carers in New Zealand is likely to be much higher as it’s difficult to gauge correctly.
“We use census data to tell us how many young carers there are but that’s flawed because it’s only able to tell us people that are 15 and up," she told Breakfast.
"We know young carers can be as young as three years old.”
The Children’s Commissioner is throwing his support behind a push to provide more support to ensure young carers' work isn’t at the “cost of their childhood or teenage years.”
“We need to understand the context of the issue, to look at prevalence to providing tailored, specialised care because young people aren’t just junior adults.”
“These extraordinary young people deserve our enormous respect, sense of gratitude.”
Donnan told Breakfast that many young carers go on to suffer mental health issues as they mature into adulthood, as they struggle to adapt to their own independence.
She says many struggle to catch up after putting their family members' wellbeing above their own during their childhood.
“In terms of children’s education, their mental health, their ability to socialise; it has extremely poor outcomes. Not only at the time of providing care but as they enter adulthood.”
Becroft says politicians needs “do right by them" to ensure young carer's are given the adequate level of care beyond the standard approach to adult carers.
The issue of young carers was mentioned in the most recent Carers’ Strategy Plan but changes have been slow to implement.
“If we did what’s been in the action plan, that’s frankly been good on plan but low on action, that would be a great start,” he said.
“They need to be front and centre of our action plan, to do right by them and nothing less will do.”
Donnan wants the creation of a separate entity to oversee the efforts of young carers, who she says the needs of are often overlooked in adult-focussed groups.