Comment – Jonny Hoyle

When you think of Christmas, you think of a big turkey dinner, friends and, most importantly, you think of family.

I remember trying to get to sleep on Christmas eve thinking: “If I don’t get to sleep soon, Santa won’t come.” I also remember waking up bright and early on Christmas morning to wake the house up and see the wonderful glow of wrapping paper underneath the 6ft Christmas tree.

Later on, Christmas dinner was on the go, with the smell of sage and onion surrounding the house. There were selection boxes and toy boxes thrown all around the house and the happy sound of children playing with their new bikes or action figures. For most children, these are the happiest days of their lives.

While you are thinking about this, stop to imagine waking up to nothing – absolutely nothing. No mum and dad, no brothers or sisters, no Christmas presents, no Christmas dinner. Sometimes no heating or electricity. Sometimes no home.

That’s what Christmas is like for some children in care and care leavers. Christmas can be a magical time, but it can also be the cruellest time of the year.  I was lucky – others are not.

Social workers and personal advisers have to tread a very fine line. Although many of them want to work over Christmas, they also have families of their own.

Often pressure is put on them to spend more time at home over the holidays. This leaves the offices running on a skeleton staff and means there is less support for care leavers when they need it the most.

It’s not unusual for parents to give their children money to buy other family members a present. When you consider many care leavers live on an extremely tight budget, how are they expected to find the money to buy presents? Many businesses pay wages early in time for Christmas, others give Christmas bonuses. So why is it that local authorities expect young people to get through Christmas on the £42 per week they get for the rest of the year?

Peer support groups can play a big part in Christmas. Young people who have left care can be teamed up and can go to a restaurant for Christmas dinner together, safe in the knowledge that they are not alone. I think we need to get better at making sure our young people can be around people they know at Christmas time. The Moving On Group I’m involved with is more of a family to some members than their own families. It should be part of everybody’s pathway plan that they have somewhere to go where they know people, and actually have a chance of enjoying themselves.

Another huge problem is peer pressure. Young people often go back to school to find their friends talking about all the things they were given for Christmas. This can lead children and young people in care to lie about the presents they got to try to be socially accepted. This only leads to problems in the future when they’re caught out, causing further embarrassment and rejection – which is the last thing anybody needs.

So what do children and young people in, and leaving, the care system need?

We need more consideration from managers and budget holders. Looked-after children and care leavers need to have their needs and feelings understood, and a little more compassion would be good too.

We also need a bit of forward planning (and by forward I don’t mean in December) to make sure care leavers don’t have to experience Christmas alone. We can never make up for the absence of a family but we can try to bridge the gap.

Jonny Hoyle is a care leaver, and works for the care leavers’ organisation A National Voice

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