Christmas, as we all know, can be one of the most stressful times of the year. And for children in care, the constant focus on family during the festive period, can be an especially painful reminder that their lives are different from those of other young people.
Kevin Williams is the chief executive of The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (TACT), which provides fostering and adoption services. He says:“Children can feel a torn loyalty between their birth parents and their foster life.” For agencies such as TACT there is a lot of work to be done to prepare foster carers, as well as the children in their care, for what can be a difficult time. Plans for children that set out, for example, contact arrangements for children in care, which must take into account the individual circumstances of each child.
For some children it may be better that they do not see their birth family. But the best-laid plans can be scuppered. “We try to make sure each child has a proper plan but things don’t always work out,” says Williams. His agency, which provides on-call support to foster carers over the Christmas holidays, dealt with a couple of cases last year where plans had been made for children to spend Christmas with their parents but carers had been forced to collect them, following problems. Other children are left excitedly waiting for a visit from their mother or father, only to be disappointed when they don’t arrive. Drink-fuelled rows are commonplace in homes around the country but Williams says increased emphasis on drinking at Christmas can be particularly problematic for families where misuse has contributed largely to family breakdown.
One manager at an independent fostering agency remembers an occasion when he was called on Christmas day by a foster carer who wanted him to remove the child who had been placed with his family just days before because he was unable to deal with the problems the child presented. He was able to resolve the dispute by talking to the family about how to defuse the tensions between one of the carers and the child.
Situations like these rarely arise, he insists.
Nonetheless, while detailed plans are made for most young people in care, even if they do not always prevent difficulties, others are left feeling uncertain about where they will spend the day. John Kemmis, chief executive of Voice, a charity that provides advocacy services for looked-after children, says in the run-up to the Christmas holiday staff on its helpline have dealt with a number of calls from distressed young people who less than a week before the day have no idea where or with whom they will be.
“We are dealing with one young person in a placement provided by a private agency. Days before Christmas the London council responsible for them has announced that they want them to be accommodated with an in-house carer. That type of uncertainty can have a terrible impact on their mental health. You can’t help suspect that there are some local authorities which make these decisions so close to Christmas so that you don’t have time to challenge them.”
Huge uncertainty, as well as a host of other problems, affect many children and young people in care all year round, says Kemmis. “They don’t stop just because it’s Christmas.”