Hidden away in all corners of Canada is a population of youngsters who take on the adult role of family caregiver at an early age, some as young as three years old. They become caregivers because someone in their family has a disability, a chronic illness, a mental health issue or a substance abuse problem. In some immigrant or refugee families there may be a language barrier because the parents speak neither English nor French. In these families, children act as translators, often in stressful situations such as a doctor’s visit, a meeting with a social worker, immigration official, or bank manager. In all of these cases, the tasks these youngsters perform go far beyond the ordinary household chores that we expect children to do as part of growing up and taking on responsibility, although housework is often part of what they do. Many become little adults, and sacrifice part of their childhood in order to lend a helping hand to their families.
These youngsters have been called the “silent population.” We do not even know how many “young carers” exist in Canada, but we do know there are an estimated 3.6 million Canadians of all ages who are disabled (PALS, 200l). If we use a conservative rule of thumb of 3% of the disabled population, as suggested by Saul Becker, a British researcher, there would be at least 108,000 Canadian young carers out there, somewhere. This number would not even include the children who act as translators for their families. By and large, Canadian young carers remain out of sight, out of mind, and unrecognized by the professional community, by the education system, by government and even by their closest friends. They truly are “invisible.”
This is not the case in many other countries. Great Britain, for example, founded the young carer movement in the early 1990s, and has made great strides in research, support, advocacy and raising public awareness about who young carers are, what they do and what their needs are. The British initiative has spread slowly around the world, to places such as New Zealand, Australia, Africa, Malta, Japan and the United States. In 2005, a national study conducted in the United States found there were an estimated 1.5 million American young caregivers, and some of them have even been featured on Oprah.
Young Carers Canada is a website sponsored by the Young Carers Initiative (YCI), a not-for-profit organization located in the Niagara Region, Ontario. The website has been developed to promote public awareness of “young carers” and to provide information for young carers themselves, for their parents, their families, teachers, social workers, other community workers and government.