‘We call it ‘broken toy syndrome’: Christmas on the social care frontline

Along with mince pies and mulled wine, the Christmas period brings a whole host of unique challenges for social care professionals and vulnerable families. Polly Baynes hears from people facing a range of pressures this festive season.

Picture credit: Jeff Blackler/Rex Features

For the most vulnerable families, the festive season can create a perfect storm of increased stress and reduced access to services.

Families and professionals alike can be reluctant to take protective action at such an emotive time. There is a regular drop in care applications in December and callers to Women’s Aid over Christmas tend to be seeking advice about how to keep their family together safely, rather than planning to leave a violent partner.

Community Care spoke to a range of people who work in social care, or have used services, about their expectations for Christmas 2012.

‘A great camaraderie and ‘broken toy syndrome’

James Orton*, out of hours social worker: “There is a great camaraderie between those working out of hours at Christmas – police, ambulance drivers, duty doctors. We work together to find solutions and sometimes have to bend the rules in a way that just doesn’t happen in the daytime.

“Meals on Wheels are still delivered at Christmas, but people forget to mention that they will be away visiting family. It is not unusual for us to spend Christmas afternoon chasing up six elderly people who might have fallen – but are actually happily eating lunch with their families while we are standing on their doorstep in the rain.

“Usually it is quite quiet on Christmas Day, but referrals increase in the days that follow. We call it ‘broken toy syndrome’ – people spend three days together, their coping mechanisms fade and they fall out.  

“One year there was a spate of thefts in a particular block of flats, leaving several families without presents for their children. We phoned a local millionaire who owns a chain of shops. He told us to come round and help ourselves. It was a good feeling – we saved those children’s Christmas”.

‘I have been pretending it’s not Christmas, but it is’

Kerry*, mother: “My 11-year-old son, Sammy, lives with his grandparents. I have been heroin user for 18 years, but now I am on methadone. I get to see Sammy for a few hours on Christmas Eve. I am really grateful to his grandparents, but I feel resentful too. Being away from Sammy at Christmas burns. It hurts like my heart is being ripped out on the floor.

“I have been pretending that it’s not December, pretending it’s not Christmas, but it is. On Christmas Day I will sit at home with no food and no decorations, only one Christmas card from my Mum. Christmas is a time for families, if I can’t have that, I’ll have the next best thing – heroin gives you a big hug and takes away the pain. I have never got through Christmas clean.

“What would I say to anyone else who is involved with social services because of drugs? Do everything social workers tell you, get support. Once you’ve lost your kids, life is not worth living. Social workers need to be honest – tell families they will have their children taken away if they don’t stop. I didn’t see it coming.”

‘A mountain of different things to do’

Jane Simmonds*, foster carer: “Christmas is absolutely manic, you need to do your best for everyone – your own family, the children you care for and their extended families. You have a mountain of different things to do – parties, school plays and keeping contact going. If the parents are happy with you, it comes through to the child.

We always send presents to the family from us as well as from the child. Fostering can cause so much disruption to your own family, it is really important that foster children have Christmas Day just at home with their carers, no matter what. It brings you together.”

‘It’s surprising we’re not all fighting like cats and dogs’

Calvin Bell, domestic violence consultant: “It’s unsurprising this is a time of heightened conflict and therefore violence; there is no other time of year when you are mandated to spend 48 hours locked in your home playing happy families even if you aren’t one.

“For the rest of the year, people can escape by going to a mate’s or down to the pub, but at Christmas everything is shut. The Christmas period carries huge expectations and fantasies of perfect family life; it can be a time of disappointment at a number of different levels. Throw in a few disinhibitors in the form of drugs or alcohol and it’s surprising we’re not all fighting like cats and dogs.

“There are many gendered expectations at Christmas – men are still generally the main breadwinner and feel under pressure to provide for expensive presents; women still typically bear the main responsibility for buying gifts and cards and cooking a big meal. This can lead to mutual resentment, and so to violence. Family stress is even greater for those living in poverty or poor housing. I can’t imagine what it is like to face Christmas with your children in a bedsit on bare mattresses.”

‘We encourage service users to look after each other’

Ellen Hall and Ray Van-Der-Poel, from Ocean Quay Drug and Alcohol Treatment Service: “There are so many alcohol adverts, staying abstinent takes some proper strength. People who have re-located after coming out of rehab often feel really lost and don’t have any family. Everything shuts down except for AA meetings; a lot of people just count the days until services re-open. Some people spend time with their families who often don’t understand substance misuse.

“We encourage service users to look after each other; those with strong strategies for staying clean and sober help those who are finding it hard to cope over Christmas.  

“We want to help people enjoy themselves here: we have a Christmas dinner and loads of decorations. A lot of musicians use our service and there’s always a Christmas Show. Last year our residential unit put on an all male version of Snow White! For some people it is their first proper Christmas for many years.”

Image credits (top to bottom): Image Source/Rex; Sipa Press/Rex; Image Source/Rex; Image Broker/Rex; Eric Vidal/Rex

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