A burden too heavy

Many Tasmanian children have chores – but some are struggling with far more serious and overwhelming responsibilities.

Young girl looking at cameraThere are children in our communities caring for sick relatives or young siblings. They’re trying to cope with major household tasks like cleaning, shopping and cooking.

“These are children dealing with what adults should be dealing with,” said an Anglicare worker based in the North West. “For example, children taking their little brother to get his vaccinations and be registered for school. Missing school themselves to do that”.

“Often when a house is in a state of disorder you’ll discover that some of the basics things are being done by the children. It affects their schooling and their playtime. Sometimes they know that for the adults to maintain a tenancy, there has to be cleaning done. So the children try, but can’t keep up”.

“I think children don’t ask for help because they’re scared that they may be split up or taken away from their family. They just keep quiet and try to cope,” the worker said.

“Younger children may not even realise anything’s wrong. They just know that the adults are not there for them, so if they need a feed or to get their clothes washed, they’ll have to take care of it themselves”.

Earlier this year, Anglicare’s Social Action and Research Centre set out a plan to prioritise the needs of highly vulnerable young people.

“These young people experienced enormous pressure and responsibility at the same time as being left without stable guidance and committed care,” said researcher Catherine Robinson. “They were left to look after themselves, to bring themselves up – and sometimes their siblings – in often very chaotic environments whilst also experiencing a heavy burden of trauma and grief”.

Anglicare is calling for a strategic whole-of-government approach to the well-being of Tasmania’s children, led by the Department of Premier and Cabinet. “The wellbeing of children should be a priority, non-partisan issue” said Anglicare CEO Chris Jones. “Central agency leadership and coordination would hold all departments to account for how their strategies, policies and programs will work to achieve better outcomes for vulnerable young people”.

Anglicare’s report Too Hard? Highly Vulnerable Teens in Tasmania highlighted the resilience and strength of young people, including a child who had supported her mother and siblings during a period of extreme family violence. Another child had cared for her sick mother, younger siblings (including babies), and her frail grandmother.

“These kids miss huge chunks of school,” said a Burnie Anglicare worker last week. “Their nutrition is usually terrible– they’re eating noodles and things that are not going to give them the energy to pay attention. They’re exhausted, falling asleep in class”.

“They’re isolated too. They get picked on because of their family background, their behaviour, their reactions. These kids will flip a desk rather than say ‘I don’t know how to do that’. It’s less embarrassing than asking for help”.

Workers described the extreme vulnerability of children who had experienced trauma. “We do see homeless young people taken in by known sex offenders,” said one. “They’re given a place to stay, meals, gifts – which is huge to someone who has never had that before”.

Anglicare has identified a number of priority areas for action including the provision of medium and long-term therapeutic supported accommodation for children under the age of 16, trauma specific mental health services, and greater support for schools to meet the educational needs of students impacted by trauma.

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