How a care worker shortage is driving families of disabled kids into poverty

ITV News' Peter Smith reports on the devastating impact of the cost of living crisis on carers

A critical shortage in care workers in the UK is pushing parents of children with disabilities out of work and into poverty, according to data seen by ITV News.

There are about 7 million unpaid carers in the UK - parents like single mother Steph Sanchez, who provides round-the-clock care for her nine-year-old daughter Kia, who has severe epilepsy as well as multiple learning and physical disabilities.

Due to the lack of professionally trained carers available to work in the country now, Steph does everything herself, day and night: medicating, washing, feeding, and physio.

“I broke my toe the other week,” Steph says.

“But I couldn’t go to hospital because there was no one I could rely on to look after my little girl.”

Steph has two university degrees and was working full-time as a teacher, but she had to give that up.

Now her only source of income is the carer’s allowance benefit: just over £350 a month in Scotland.

This is about £5 a week higher than the same benefit in England, but while costs go up, Steph is still struggling.

She says she has nothing left to cut back.

'I just feel so guilty and it's just little things': Steph said not being able to provide Kia with treats she loves has been devastating

“The guilt that you feel because I can’t treat Kia to things any more,” she says.

“Kia loves this lemon yoghurt - a lemon curd yoghurt - but I can’t afford it. It’s £2.25 now, and I just can’t.

“It’s so silly but the other day my mum came out and put it in my fridge without saying anything. I just feel so guilty and it’s just the little things.”

Data from Carers Trust shared with ITV News shows us Steph is not alone: a quarter (25%) of the UK’s carers admit they’ve recently had to cut back on eating food; a similar number (26%) have had to borrow money just to get by - building up debt.

And almost a million unpaid carers (14%) have now missed a deadline for paying household bills.

In a statement, the UK government told us “We hugely value the work and dedication of unpaid carers - which is why we are providing £25m of funding over the next two years to support them.”

That money works out at about £1.70 per carer per year across the UK.

The Scottish government also says it’s committed to improving the lives of unpaid carers, and in an interview, we asked Scotland’s social care minister, Maree Todd MSP, if she could live on just over £350 a month while caring for a profoundly disabled child.

“I know that I would struggle, I mean it’s impossible,” she told us. “It’s really, really difficult for anybody to live on £350 a month and we are trying really hard to make sure the money gets to the people who need it the most.”

Scotland's social care minister Maree Todd has said the position that millions of unpaid carers across the country face is 'impossible'

What Scotland’s social care minister says is “impossible” is the daily reality for millions of unpaid carers across the country.

And now, on top of the financial pressure, the stress on families looking after someone with a disability is getting worse because of the UK-wide shortage of professionally trained workers in the care sector just now.

“It’s not difficult to find staff just now; it’s nigh on impossible,” says Sandra Semple, the project manager at a Quariers respite care centre in Renfrewshire.

Across the country, short breaks services like hers are either cutting back or closing down completely.

These are places that would normally be a haven for children with disabilities to benefit from some respite along with people their own age, while also giving the parents a rest once every few months.

The Quariers centre we visit used to be open seven days a week but now it’s down to five, and there is only one reason.

“We do not have the staff to be able to provide the service that we could be providing, which is resulting in beds lying empty,” Sandra says.

“We’ve advertised, we’ve tried going to job fairs - the staff just are not there.

Sandra has worked at Quariers for 40 years.

Sandra Semple says 'the staff just aren't there' resulting in respite centres scaling back or closing entirely. Credit: ITV News

Her colleague Lianne Philp joined last year, and she has an idea why the country is so desperately short of care staff like her.

“They can get more money going to places like Aldi or Lidl for sitting on a check-out and scanning things than they could working in care and having all the responsibility.”

At a time when there’s already so much strain on unpaid carers, even charities that support them are now facing cuts. PAMIS in South Lanarkshire would normally help parents like Steph but they’ve just lost their funding - and they’re losing the office they’ve called home for the last 12 years.

“Everything is coming to a head now for families, making things extremely difficult,” says Lesley McLaren, who has worked for PAMIS for over a decade.

“I do have concerns about where this will lead and, unfortunately, with the loss of our service how many other services will follow behind us?

“I would say for some families we are already at crisis point and no one is listening to them.”

While every aspect of the UK’s care system is creaking, a full-blown care crisis is being averted for now by people like Steph.

The unpaid carers - often isolated and unseen - who save the government millions of pounds in professional caring costs.

They are the ones supporting the most vulnerable people in our society.

They’ve had to give up their careers and they sacrifice large parts of their own lives, sometimes their own health, to cover for shortages in the country’s declining care sector.

And yet the thanks for so many is being left with barely enough to survive to the end of each month.

If you're a carer who needs help and advice, there are a number of organisations and charities who can help:

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