Row upon row of sparkling Christmas lights hang outside of Willows, a large house on a smart suburban street in Croydon, Surrey. A reindeer statue sits on the gravel driveway next to a sign appealing “Santa stop here”. Willows may look like any family home decorated for the festive season but, unlike its neighbours, it is a residential children’s home.
Being a child in care can be problematic enough, but the focus at Christmas on families spending time together can make it particularly difficult. Willows manager Jo Pye is very aware of the issues children in residential care face over Christmas, having worked for five years in a local authority social services department before setting up Jigsaw (Croydon), the company which runs the home, in 2000.
“Christmas can be very stressful for children because of their previous experiences with their families or in other care placements,” says Pye, who has a degree in psychology and a diploma and masters in social work. “We have had children here who don’t expect presents or anything at all, and some who expect the world because they are in care.”
Willows invokes the spirit of Christmas with its exuberant use of Christmas decorations. They are everywhere, much to the delight of the children. Pride of place is a tall Christmas tree decorated with gold baubles and bows in the living room. Come Christmas morning it will have presents under it.
Pye says staff try to make it as homely as possible for its young residents, particularly at this time of year. “Most of the children here are on full care orders so this is their full-time home.” She says that some of the children feel split loyalties between Willows and any family members they are in touch with at Christmas.
To ensure that children recognise Willows as their home, no family members or previous carers are allowed inside it and any contact takes place elsewhere, sometimes supervised.
Residential social worker Maxine Ince has worked at Willows for nearly six years and has been on duty at Christmas for four of them. “It has been lovely working here over Christmas and I get so excited for the kids,” she says. “The first year I did it was such a different experience for me to see the look on the children’s faces when they came down on Christmas morning was great.”
Ince usually works overnight on Christmas Eve, along with a colleague so that two staff are always on shift, and then leaves at 3pm on Christmas Day to return to her own children. Does it bother her working on Christmas Day? “No, I have half my life here and half at home over Christmas. It doesn’t feel like I’m working,” she says. Pye has also worked over the Christmas period at Willows because she believes it is important the children spend time with staff they know and trust, and not agency workers.
Willows can accommodate up to eight children and currently cares for four boys aged between 11 and 16. Max* is 11 and has lived at Willows for 15 months. Last year was his first Christmas at the home and he enjoyed it a lot. “It was really good, I had my own space to open my presents. I’d written a letter to Santa Claus, I didn’t think he existed before but when he replied I knew he was real,” he says.
After spending the morning with the other boys opening his presents and playing games he went to see his mother in the afternoon. He appreciated the chance to do this because, he says, at other children’s homes “they wouldn’t want you to do that”.
Another fan of Christmas at Willows is 13-year-old Joshua.* He has spent the last two years living in the home having gone into care as a baby. “I like Christmas because I’m a Christian,” he says. “Last year we all had our photo taken wearing Christmas hats. When I’ve been in foster families it’s not been as good. Here we get to do more activities and socialise.” Father Christmas brought him a Playstation 2 last year and this year he is hoping for an iPod Nano.
* Not their real names