As you prepare for a jolly family Christmas, spare a thought for the children whose presents will be placed under another family’s tree. This year more than 65,000 children and young people in the UK will spend Christmas separated from their own families, living in foster care. While foster families will do everything they can to make it a special day, Christmas can be the most difficult time for looked after children, and for the people who care for them.
It is the time of year when separation from mums and dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles and even siblings can become unbearable. No matter what has gone before, whatever the circumstances of the placement, this is the moment when the sense of loss is the deepest. And seeing presents under the tree with your name tag, alongside unfamiliar names of well-meaning but distant folk, compounds feelings of loneliness.
Visitors come and go, each one greeted with love and affection and invited to make themselves at home. There is a bond, a history of shared experiences, between them and the foster family, likely to mean little to a recently arrived boy or girl. Family traditions have to be explained, and anecdotes make no sense because, well, you had to be there, didn’t you … As the house fills, there are fewer places to hide. Guests mean well, they want to get to know you. Except they don’t, not really. For the truth might be too awful. And this is Christmas.
Contact sessions with birth family members over Christmas can be harrowing, sometimes too long, often not long enough. Celebrating Christmas in a council office or a library is a joyless affair, knowing that the clock is ticking as you exchange presents with loved ones under the watchful eye of a contact supervisor. How can you describe your own Christmas when your own mum or dad have never seen where you live, and the reason you are there is so painful? Saying goodbye is gut-wrenching, and returning to a stranger’s home in a stranger’s car chokes the Christmas spirit.
There is every chance that at your children’s school, there is a child or young person in foster care, whose presents are being placed under another family’s tree
Many children in care will have moved foster homes two or three times since being separated from their families, and some even more. They may see this as simply the latest stopover as they get pulled through a care system so short in compassion. In contrast, with 90 children being placed in care every day, hundreds will be spending their first Christmas apart from their birth families, still struggling to come to terms with what has happened.
Christmas can be a tough time for foster carers, too. They must juggle the needs of their foster children and the expectations of their own family and friends. Having an extended family who support your commitment is a blessing, but not every carer is so fortunate. We hope people can always find room in their homes, and their hearts, for the children in our care, yet accept this will not always be the case. Friends who provide a support network during term time are busy with their own Christmas festivities, so carers can feel isolated.
The current shortage of foster carers is felt particularly keenly at Christmas, as those who do foster make every effort to ensure that children placed in care at least have a temporary home where they feel safe and welcome over the holiday season.
There is every chance that at your children’s school, there is a child or young person in foster care, whose presents are being placed under another family’s tree. Ahead of the Christmas holidays, extend the hand of friendship and ask if there is anything you can do to help. Your kindness will never be forgotten.