In the heat of summer, enduring childhood memories are forged: of scalding sands on foreign beaches, of holiday romance and heartbreak, of campsite misadventures, of that first clandestine beer. Life-forming experiences in simpler times.
For foster carers and the children and young people in their care, summers are more complicated. For looked-after children whose lives have already been severely disrupted, long school holidays mean separation from classmates and the academic routines that provided a degree of stability. Contact with family members can be difficult to maintain through holiday periods, and living in a different town or neighbourhood puts lifelong friendships under pressure. A holiday with a family you cannot call your own can be an unsettling experience. In any case, travel, particularly outside the UK, is often opposed by birth families.
Social workers are also on holiday and courts are in recess so procedures are put on hold for several weeks: it is rare for important decisions to be agreed in July or August, or even early in September. Access to counselling or medical appointments is limited. Amid this uncertainty, summer can become a period of introspection and frustration, rather than of opportunity and carefree fun.
For foster carers, particularly those with shorter-term placements, the approach of summer holidays can also be daunting. Foster families face the same pressures as other families but often must make do without the social networks, including extended families (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) or the companionship of other families who have been friends for several years. Our closest friends are of a similar age (we are in our fifties) and their children have mostly left home. They are kind and generous with their time but finding common ground with the toddlers or adolescents who are in our care is a challenge.
The expense of summer is another consideration for foster carers. The economics of fostering are, at best, precarious, and it is during the holidays that many placements tip into deficit. Foster carers are committed to providing the same opportunities for looked-after children as they do for their own children but this has to be managed within a tight household budget. Even stay-at-home holidays incur significant expense, with trips to farm parks, beach, cinema and shows, for example, accounting for more than typical fostering allowances will cover. Yet it is essential for looked-after children to enjoy the same experiences available to other children, and to have the same happy memories of carefree summers, and foster carers generally bear these costs from their own pocket. Summertime is when the altruistic nature of fostering comes to the fore.
In fact, the system of child protection becomes severely stretched all round during the summer. The risk to vulnerable children is as high as ever during the holiday period, but possibly less likely to be detected. For example, neglected children who depend on school dinners may often go without a cooked meal outside of term time. But the system may be slower to respond at this time of year. Social services, always under pressure, become even more short-staffed than usual. Many foster carers are unavailable through the holidays, keen to spend much-needed time with their own families and friends. Meanwhile, family courts are grappling with their own logistical problems. So children who are placed in care in the summer are more likely to have to move again once the system creaks back to normal service at the end of the holidays.
We are, finally, making plans for a holiday at the end of the summer. We have been unable to book anything until now because of the uncertain timing of the end of a placement. Before we go away we are providing respite care for two families, whose own arrangements were made before children came into their care. Access to respite care in the summer is extremely limited, so we feel that providing support to other families is an essential part of our commitment as foster carers. And we feel blessed in the company of children.
This is a good time, before school breaks up for summer, to make sure that foster carers and looked-after children in your community have all the help and support they need. Your friendship could help to make someone's idyllic summertime memory, and what better reward can there be?