A special time

From frivolous TV ads to more solemn Christian messages, we are reminded that Christmas is a time for families. But surrounding the traditional log-burning fires and over-decorated trees is a complex reality of family life. Think of stepfamilies, for example, which are the most rapidly growing type of family unit.

And think of the feelings thrown up by the festive season for children in care and their families. It was this thinking that last year prompted social workers in County Kildare in Ireland to look at improving the quality of contact during Christmas.

“Family visits and contact for children in care are important all the year round but as Christmas approaches parents become acutely aware that they will not be spending Christmas Day with their children,” says family project co-ordinator, Mary Hogan. “They often start enquiring as early as October about when they will have their Christmas visit. After all, this will be their last opportunity before Christmas to be a parent or Santa. It had become clear to me that this was different to the other type of visits and contacts throughout the year.”

In previous years two particular problems had always faced Christmas contact: timings and venues. Most families wanted their contact visits to take place in the week before Christmas but this proved impossible given the number of families involved.

Also, the only available venues alternative to normal arrangements tended to be coffee shops or fast-food restaurants. Says Hogan: “This resulted, for example, in families giving and receiving presents in these venues in full view of the general public – not a good experience for anyone.”

So in the run up to Christmas last year, Hogan suggested to her social work colleagues that they offer an alternative to families: group access. “It became a team project. We found a suitable venue which was central for the families,” she says. “It had good parking facilities, separate alcoves where families could gather with a level of privacy, a kitchen, and a large area for play and a separate annexe for Santa.”

The group contact visit was held over two days, between 2pm-5pm, with 13 families taking part. “Eight social workers donned Santa hats and prepared the hall and food,” says Hogan. “We made table cards for each family depicting a Christmas theme and these were matched with the family’s name on a wall chart which was placed discreetly inside the entrance to the hall. This offered privacy and anonymity to each family.”

Importantly, birth families and foster parents were involved. Birth parents were asked to provide a present for Santa (maximum 10, about 7) for each child; while foster parents were asked to bring and collect the children for the visit.

“The access visit was also open to other family members to attend,” says Hogan. “For entertainment, we offered face painting, hair braiding, music and Santa. With permission we took photos of families and of children’s visits to Santa.”

Evaluating the visit, social workers felt it had been positive for the families involved, praising the good atmosphere, activities, space for families to interact with their children and other families. They felt it had been a “special time” for the children.

Parents generally agreed although some found it impersonal and were upset that no Christmas music had been provided and that children were not encouraged by workers to dance. One parent thought the visit uncomfortable for older children.

The response from the children themselves was, however, more positive. “Some siblings reported that it triggered more contact between them over the Christmas period as they began texting each other,” says Hogan. “Another group of siblings said they were just happy to spend time catching up with each other. Younger children said they enjoyed the face painting and hair braiding and that Santa was good fun!”

Lessons learned

  • Social workers tended to be more positive than the parents. Says Hogan: “Parents had a higher level of expectation in terms of food and entertainment than was practicable. This reflected a general misunderstanding about the purpose of the visit: it was not intended to be a Christmas party.”
  • Workers enjoyed the “fun” element of being involved and noted better relationships with staff from across the county.
  • This year the Christmas access event will take place over three days accommodating more families from across the county.


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