For many children in care Christmas is the most miserable part of the year, so social workers need to be alert to possible placement breakdowns. Camilla Pemberton reports
On Christmas Eve last year, a boy of 12 stood shivering on his mother’s doorstep. Aaron* hadn’t seen his mother for nearly nine months but they had been allowed to spend Christmas together. Excited, he rang the doorbell. Accompanied by a social worker, he waited.
One hour and several phone calls later, he was still waiting. His mother, a recovering alcoholic, was in hospital after a suspected overdose. No one had thought to check that she was prepared for her son’s visit. Aaron’s social worker drove him back to his foster carers that afternoon, but he ran away on Christmas Day. He was missing for three months.
Aaron is one of many children in the UK for whom Christmas does not hold happy memories. His experience will resonate with social care professionals. “I’ve spent so many Christmases not at home with my own family, but comforting a distraught child after the festive period has ended in disaster,” says Becki, an emergency duty social worker from Hull.
She attributes this to unmet, and mismanaged, expectations. “We are sold images of happy, functioning families around Christmas so hopes are high. But this may be so far removed from some families’ reality that it all becomes overwhelming.”
Add to the mix financial concerns, increased alcohol consumption, family feuds and the reduced availability of professional support networks, and vulnerable families can find themselves facing a toxic cocktail of potential pressures.
“If things go wrong they often go spectacularly wrong because situations are exacerbated by families spending increased time together and fewer professionals are around to turn to,” says Anthony Douglas, chief executive of family courts body Cafcass.
When problems ignite, the worst cases can lead to domestic violence, mental health episodes or emergency referrals to children’s services and the police.
Det Chief Insp Dick Henson of the Child Abuse Investigation Command, says that, although police can cope with the increased workload, “referrals do tend to spike a bit when schools close down, and emergency teams do pick up more family tension”.
Busiest time of year
Raw data from Cafcass also suggest a rise in the number of emergency protection orders around Christmas. One foster carer writing on Community Care‘s online forum, CareSpace, agrees Christmas is “my busiest time of year” because of the number of children needing emergency placements.
For looked-after children like Aaron, who spent three months staying with friends before moving on into a new placement, Christmas reinforces separation. Kevin Gallagher, deputy managing director of the Continuum Care and Education Group, says it can trigger feelings of rejection, anger and even jealousy manifest themselves in children, he says, which often manifest in disruptive and challenging behaviour.
To ensure children are given positive memories at Christmas, Jill Sheldrake, director of social care at the Together Trust, calls on social workers to plan ahead. “The reality is that, with many staff taking leave, logistical arrangements are difficult. Better and more proactive planning will promote emotional well-being, reduce negative behaviour and lessen the risk of young people going missing.”
* Name has been changed
Case study: ‘I always feel there is something lacking at Christmas’.
Care leaver Jennifer Sarumi reflects on Christmas for children in care
Christmas is an awkward time for any kid in care. No matter how close and comfortable you are with your foster family, you always feel, to some extent, out of place during Christmas.
You meet the extended family and witness everyone catching-up and having a merry time and all you can think about is how things could be with your own family. Even when your foster family makes the most tremendous effort to include you, and even if it is the best Christmas you have ever had, you still feel there is something lacking.
It goes without saying that Christmas with a not-so-good foster family or when you have to spend it by yourself is incredibly depressing and upsetting.
Some children in care would rather spend Christmas away from their foster family to escape such feelings. Mostly you will always have friends (or even people you have just met) keenly inviting you to spend Christmas with them because they know you are a foster child.
When I was younger I felt this gesture was quite annoying and patronising but now, I just smile and appreciate the fact I have people around me who care and want to share their Christmas with me.”
Jennifer Sarumi is a representative of the care-leavers’ charity Voice
Tips for a happier christmas
Working with families
Nushra Mansuri, British Association of Social Workers: Discuss typical pressure points and help families to identify strategies to avoid conflict, for example. Look at their informal support networks – extended family members, friends, community resources – and discuss how these could help over Christmas. Help families to identify projects that might provide children with presents and food parcels.
Anthony Douglas, Cafcass: Share contact numbers between duty teams so everyone knows who is contactable for advice and support. Ensure families are given contact details for available social services, pharmacists, doctors, GPs. If it’s Christmas Day and things go wrong, families need to know who is working and who can help.
CareSpace user: Make sure families have enough money for the electric/gas meter, food and a present for the children. So many families prioritise alcohol, then, when the house is cold and children are hungry it kicks off. Considering the cost of emergency placements, I think the money would be better spent on food parcels and topping up meters before things spiral.
CareSpace user: Social services [should keep] a small supply of toys, so when a child is placed on 23/24 December, or the early hours of the 25th, they have some presents. As a foster carer, I spend every Christmas Eve dashing around shops when I’d rather be comforting children just placed.
Working with looked-after children
Kevin Gallagher, Continuum Care and Education Group: Ensure clear contact plans are in place for children and that these address the immediate and extended family. Plan this in advance and take extra care to help prepare children for contact and allow them quiet time after contact.
● Help children make cards and gifts and use these chances to share experiences and strengthen working relationships and attachments. Keep cards, gifts and letters for memory boxes and life stories.
● Remember children may destroy toys and gifts because they do not feel that they are worthy of them or because gifts from a particular family member trigger anger, pain and loss. Knowing the children allows teams to manage individual circumstances.
● Have a screwdriver and plenty of spare batteries to hand. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a new toy and not being able to play with it properly!
What do you think? Join the debate on CareSpace
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