by Surviving Safeguarding
This time of year is an expensive one, undoubtedly so if you’re a parent. Bombarded by television adverts from at least October, Christmas infests every part of our lives, and parents feel it keenly.
The pressure to provide a sack full of presents is compounded by media saturation of smiling children receiving the latest noisy/lighty up/shooty toy and no-one wants to let their little ones down.
Imagine then, if you’re a parent with children in the care system at Christmas. To my knowledge, all local authorities provide their foster carers with a specific amount to be put aside for Christmas gifts. In my local authority, North Tyneside, this is £150.
I know this because my children, still in the system, tell me. My research however indicates this amount can be as high as £247.67 (Somerset). Residential homes are afforded around the same amount, and presents for children in the care system are also donated from members of the public and businesses through initiatives such as my local Metro Radio’s “Cash for Kids”.
All of this is wonderful and richly deserved. No child should go without, particularly not the most vulnerable in our society and I am glad systems are in place.
However, for the vast majority of parents who have children in the system, for whatever reason, this can add another layer of stress and anxiety.
When your child is removed from your care, or when your child is voluntarily accommodated by the local authority, you lose all entitlements to benefits for that child. Child benefit is retained for eight weeks; however, child tax credit is removed the day your child leaves your home.
If you are in receipt of housing benefit or council tax support, the amount you receive will decrease. If you live in a local authority property, you may now be considered under occupied and your eligible rent covered by housing benefit will again decrease by up to 25% thanks to the controversial “bedroom tax”.
You can ask children’s services to make a payment under s17 CA89 to help you pay your rent during proceedings, but this is not widely known, nor advertised.
If you claim Income Support as a lone parent, when your children are no longer in your care, temporarily or permanently, you lose your entitlement to claim as a parent and must claim Job Seekers Allowance instead. This means you must be “available for work”.
If you are going through care proceedings and have meetings, conferences, assessment appointments, court hearings and supervised contacts to attend, this makes being “available for work” very difficult indeed.
Add the expectation of Christmas gifts into the mix and it makes for an extremely stressful situation during what is unquestionably the worst period of your life.
Poverty and care applications
Professor Brid Featherstone, a social work lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, sees poverty as being inextricably linked to rising care applications.
“Unfortunately, since 2010 poverty has been increasing and we are now in the middle of a perfect storm. Years of cuts to family income and council services have devastated family capacities and support services such as children’s services.”
She says this means cash-strapped councils are increasingly spending their resources on expensive care proceedings, while their support and preventive services become increasingly “hollowed out”.
“There is now robust evidence on the systematic link between poverty and a child’s chances of becoming looked after. Tackling poverty is central to protecting children and supporting families – this government has committed itself to reforming child protection but has failed to grasp there is a contradiction at the heart of its policies.”
I know how harsh the bite of losing supportive benefits, at the same time as going through care proceedings, can be because I have been through it twice.
In June 2012, the first set of proceedings were issued.
I was single, living in a local authority property after spending four months in a women’s refuge. I had fled domestic violence, and was in receipt of benefits because my mental health had been in crisis and I was unable to work. The instability of my mental health was also the trigger for the local authority issuing proceedings.
I was pregnant with my youngest child and had three children in the care system and one with their father. My eldest son came back to live with me on his 16th birthday after five months in foster care. This meant I could apply for Child Tax Credit as he was in full time education undertaking GCSE’s and then A Levels.
Living on £51 a week
However, I had been unable to claim Income Support whilst in the refuge because I had no children with me and was advised by the DWP to claim Employment Support Allowance. Upon a work capability assessment, it was deemed my mental health was stable enough for me to work and I was no longer eligible for ESA.
There was simply no other benefit to claim, I was pregnant and in the middle of care proceedings.
From November 2012 until May 2013, when I reached 29 weeks pregnant and could access Income Support for the reminder of my pregnancy, me and my teenage son lived on his child tax credit alone; a total of £51 per week.
Breakfast became a luxury. Lunch and tea became 15p noodles, sometimes with a bit of “Savers” sauce, from the local supermarket. We couldn’t afford fruit or vegetables. Through a chilly winter, we went without gas and, consequently, heating. We got used to freezing showers and sat with blankets and hot water bottles. If we ran out of electricity on the meter before we had money to top it up, we did without.
Competing with the local authority
It was like both our birthdays had come at once when the food bank delivered us packages. I remember crying when the gentleman delivering it offered me a kind word.
But my son still went to school. He still studied for, sat and passed his GCSEs. My unborn son was still provided for. I sold my underwear online to afford his crib and second-hand blankets. I felt overwhelming shame.
Christmas 2012 still had to be paid for, and I was now “competing” with the local authority, who could provide my children’s foster carers with enough money to cover the items on “Santa’s List”. I remember one of my children wanting an expensive Lego set. I begged and borrowed to afford it.
When you’re eight, these things matter, and I was desperately trying to overcompensate for the mistakes I had made which had led to him being placed in care. Our family “Christmas” took place in a cold, clinical, contact centre. I had done my best to provide what I could for everyone.
Second set of proceedings
The first proceedings concluded, the second were issued upon my new-born son’s removal at 6 days old. I was informed by the DWP I was no longer entitled to Income Support because my child was not with me and again could live only on my eldest son’s child tax credit.
I could not pay rent, nor council tax and ended up owing thousands of pounds of debt to the same local authority who had taken my baby and was fighting to have him adopted. Some days I could not afford the train fare to get to court.
None of this was taken into account by the local authority when assessing me and, in fact, my need to use a food bank was then presented as evidence of a “chaotic lifestyle”.
This issue is not unique to me and my circumstances. Children are subject to care proceedings for a variety of different reasons, but often money plays a factor.
The damage of austerity measures
Research carried out by the Nuffield Foundation suggests children in deprived areas are more likely to be on a child protection plan or looked after, while children in more affluent local authorities were more likely to get support from social services.
Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields, Shadow Minister for Children and Families and an ex-child protection social worker, says the government has “continued to obsess” with adoption, while disregarding the impact budget cuts are having on early help support for families.
“Their closure of Sure Start units and removal of early years help in family support centers, and the disproportionate cuts to local authorities in the most deprived areas have taken their toll.
“They have continued to show complete ignorance of the fact that their austerity measures and punitive welfare policies are causing untold damage. All this government seems to be doing for desperate families is turning the screw tighter and tighter, year on year, until they break,” Lewell-Buck says.
Capacity to change
As a mum with children in the care system, and one who has survived multiple sets of proceedings, it is my intention to campaign for more joined up thinking in this area. Perhaps benefits and bedroom tax should be frozen during care proceedings.
Perhaps local authorities could work in collaboration with parents around the financial aspects of special occasions like Christmas and birthdays.
Only by supporting people do you gain their trust and reinforce belief in their own capacity to change.