It was the case Steve Hodgkins will never forget.
When police officers were called to a Blackpool high school to reports of an alleged assault involving a 14-year-old boy lashing out at a teacher, the story they uncovered led Sgt Hodgkins to take a very different view – and side with a teenager who turned out to be one of Blackpool’s hidden army of unpaid carers.
Steve, a community cohesion and partnerships sergeant at Blackpool, who is now chairman of trustees for Blackpool Carers’ Centre, has since become a passionate advocate for carers of all ages – but in particular young carers.
“I’ve been in the police 27 years, based in London 12 years initially, a crisis and hostage negotiator,” he explains.
“I was first on the scene of the IRA bombings in Hammersmith, I’ve been involved in numerous really distressing incidents. I thought I’d seen it all, had the experience and knowledge to deal with anything life threw at me.
“But I didn’t know how to deal with the situation this boy found at home. We had been called out for an alleged assault on a teacher by a 14-year-old boy. The school had a zero tolerance policy.
“Then all the facts came out about what this boy was going through. He had fallen asleep, the teacher had woken him, and, startled he had flung out his arm and caught the teacher. The policy meant the school reported it to police.
“There is a 12-point charter for young carers to which police sign up, but it can be just words on a bit of paper. It takes the reality of a situation such as this to bring the message home.
“One of my team dealt with the incident, but I got more involved as the circumstances emerged.
“He was an unregistered young carer, his father an alcoholic, and he had been looking after his dad, drunk, overnight, who had been vomiting, not wanting him to choke on the vomit, making sure he was still alive and breathing.
“And then he had to get up early to get washed and dressed, food ready and pack lunches for his two younger sisters, and all this was going on in the background… and he had fallen asleep in class.
“So the story came out and I was, blimey, I had never come across anything like this before, and how was it allowed to happen, and why wasn’t support in place, and how had it got to the point where police had been called for assault on a teacher?
“So I got more interested in young carers and their story, and the more I realised there was a real issue, and I could do my bit to support and help them. Then I saw how this charity supports people from five to 97 – and it had slipped right under my police radar.
“It was a challenging time for me. I was confident I could go to domestic disputes, car accidents, attend a crisis situation and my knowledge would see me through – but to come across something beyond my experience made a lasting impression.
“I can’t take much credit for the amazing successful organisation that is the Carers’ Centre, but I can hope to do my little bit. I’m really proud of what we are achieving and have achieved but there are a lot of carers out there and individuals and families who need support so there is always more we can do.
“My nan suffers dementia now, and I’m a carer too, and really proud of the fact this charity covers from five to 95.
“It’s not sexy, hearts and minds, heartstring stuff – sometimes we’re talking about heroin addicts, alcoholics, mental health issues and their children are caring for them.
“It doesn’t fit with the negative national media perception of benefits Britain and people not working – but these kids are tainted by that association.
“It’s challenging to get other people thinking we should support them to support their families. But these kids are great, you know? They care and they show real responsibility, and they’re exactly the sort of young people we need to support to break the cycle, and guide towards positive potential and power. ”