Looking after a child with disabilities or a life-limiting condition can put intense strain on parents and carers, and even lead to family breakdown – which is why ground-breaking day-care provider Hop, Skip and Jump is appealing for more funding to offer respite and to support carers before they reach breaking point, writes SARAH SINGLETON.

Tucked away in Ridge Green, in a quiet space among the trees and seeming a hundred miles from the noise of the town, the Swindon Hop, Skip and Jump centre is the perfect example – offering non-judgemental support and advice to parents whenever they need it, as well as flexible, immediate day care for children with all kinds of special needs and illnesses, however complex.

Playing in the fresh air under the trees, or indoors making the most of the soft play area, children and young people at the Swindon centre are clearly enjoying their time in the beautiful surroundings of the old stone farmhouse, in which it is based.

The centre has a full accessible kitchen, and in the outdoor space, children play in a castle, race track and swings. It has a Rainbow Clinic, a wooden cabin for children with acute needs, containing a light and comfortable space with sensory facilities and a changing room.

Not only does the centre provide support and care for some of the country’s most disadvantaged children, it also saves them from being taken into care when families simply can no longer cope – and the consequent costs to local authorities.

Now Hope, Skip and Jump is campaigning for their vital contribution to be recognised and for funding to keep up their vital work.

“We are expert in specialist social care who can save local authorities a minimum of £2.25 million per annum by preventing children being taken into care and family breakdown. But no-one wants to know,” says founder Clarissa Mitchell.

She set up the charity in 1982 and it now has centres in Bristol, Liverpool, Cheltenham and Wigan, as well as Swindon.

Hayley Stone is the new CEO of the organisation – as of Friday – and she explains how demand for respite care is growing.

“The number has really increased – we get about 20 referrals a day, and up to 60 children over the course of a day, and 30 in the centre at any one time. We are open six days a week.

“We could run the centre for £180,000 a year. If each local authority could give us that, we could operate in every area,” she says.

This annual sum for one centre, serving thousands of children, compares to the average cost to the tax-payer of £135,000 per year (according to the National Audit Office 2014) when a child is taken into residential care – a process which Mrs Mitchell describes as “damaging and distressing for all concerned.”

The Swindon centre offers care to a wide range of children – those with life-limiting conditions, children needing end-of-life care, those with learning difficulties, with autism and youngsters who are under protection because of abuse. There are also children expelled for very challenging behaviour when other providers cannot cope. Although the upper age limit is 25, most of the young visitors are aged between four and 14.

Most come from Swindon and Wiltshire but social services from further afield – such as Kent and London – will also refer children who need protection.

“Our mission is to prevent family breakdown,” says Mrs Stone. “For example, we had a mum who hadn’t left her house for five months. We want to help support the family – not just the children. We have an open door. We have parent coffee mornings and we build relationships.”

The respite care is flexible to cater for the needs of the varied individuals who use it. A child might go every day for a period, or every Saturday for a year, or only during school holidays. They also support children who are not in school because they are too poorly to go.

“We are very busy in the school holidays,” Mrs Stone says. “We are contact by social workers about parents who at the end of their tether – who maybe haven’t spoken to another adult for a whole week.

“We never turn children away. Everyone will be helped, for example, if it’s mum who needs some support or a shoulder to cry on.”

Mrs Mitchell started the charity in response to the experience of a friend, who had a child with very complex special needs. The friend was a mother on her own, who was desperate for a break but had nobody to help her.

Her successor, Mrs Stone, 46, was also inspired by difficult events in her own life to follow the path that led to her new role. She had a family member with learning difficulties, and a young friend who died suddenly of pneumonia when Mrs Stone was just eleven.

“I was with her the day before,” she recalled. “It was the early 80s. I went and knocked on her door thinking she would be better and she was gone.”

Following this loss, Mrs Stone decided to train as a paediatric nurse. Aged 14, she did work experience at a special needs school and she worked as a nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital for four years. She was manager of a Mencap centre in Essex, and moved to Swindon in 2011, where she was deputy manager at the Hop, Skip and Jump centre for six years.

Now Mrs Mitchell, the former CEO, is taking on an ambassadorial role for the charity and launching a campaign to encourage every local authority to fund a Hop, Skip and Jump centre in their area, to help and support vulnerable families.

“We just want to make a difference,” said Mrs Stone. “We have the best staff – they are really dedicated and want to help families. We are caring for the most vulnerable children, who struggle with life and need love and understanding.”

For more information, visit the website www.hopskipandjump.org.uk.