Facing Festivities

How To Survive The Christmas Period Without Your Children

Christmas two years ago was a very difficult time for my family. My youngest, “BabyB”, had been removed from my arms at only six days old. He was then placed into foster care against my will and the Final Hearing was due to begin on the very first week in January where the Local Authorities plans were forced adoption. He was under an Interim Care Order, and my contact with him was supervised. This then meant that I was not permitted to see him on Christmas Day because the Local Authority did not have any staff to supervise a contact. This situation was replicated for my other two children in Local Authority care so I was not permitted to see them either, despite having my other children in my care.

Nationwide, many families will be facing what I was in the Christmas of 2013; the agony of being separated from your children on one of the days of the year when family is everything.

This post is written for you all.

Christmas these days seems to start around September, (earlier if you’re on Facebook and you have “those” friends who countdown the days from January) with garish decorations adorning shop windows and Christmas jingles and croons far and wide.

The television adverts then begin, promising happiness for all if you buy X, Y and/or Z, or making you feel substandard if you don’t have X, Y and/or Z. There are adverts boasting about turkeys and assuring the potential customer that these are the best turkeys in the world because they’ve been allowed to roam free, or had massages everyday and dined on steak or somesuch. The television programmes start telling you how to have “The Perfect Christmas” whilst you sit in your jarmies eating a ready-meal and wondering how on earth you caramelise carrots. And, of course, Christmas is not complete without a new sofa, lounge carpet, big screen smart television (with 3D) and dining suite, because everyone has money to buy these things at this time of the year and if you don’t purchase a new solid oak dining table with wingback chairs you will, frankly, ruin Grandma’s life.

The Christmas trees go up, it appears, in November nowadays and god help you if you live opposite someone who comes back from B&Q with 400,000 bright blue “chaser” lights for the outside of their home; from experience you’ll have a migraine until mid-January.
The shops are hot, loud and full of stressed shoppers and confused people picking things up off shelves, shaking their heads, and replacing them, with monotonous regularity, or other shoppers fighting over the latest toy because Little Jimmy’s life will be over unless he has a killer zombie hamster with a kung-fu grip.

The supermarkets are even worse, with people bulk-buying soup and beans because the shops are shut for all of one day, the queues are hilarious, even at 3am when you stand in Asda perplexed at the lack of broccoli and wondering if you can dye cauliflower green. You can’t turn into an aisle without a battery-operated jolly Santa singing you some vile Christmassy song, or a giant inflatable Snowman warbling that he wishes “it could be Christmas everyday” (he can sod right off).

Then there are the “bargain days”, like Black Friday where folk find themselves sitting up at 3am waiting for a “lightning deal” to begin on a pizza cutter in the shape of a motorbike and wondering where their life has gone.

Everything is big and loud and over the top for this one special, magical day of the year and everyone is under huge pressure for everything to be perfect.

 

When you’re a parent separated from your children, particularly a parent either going through Proceedings, or having gone through them, you don’t see any of the above.
I know, because I have been there.
What you see – everywhere – is loss, pain and grief.

You see happy shoppers buying for their children, and you feel pangs of jealousy, imagining their family all together on Christmas morning. You see television adverts full of happy families, together around a dinner table spending that special day talking, and laughing unitedly. It is a savage pain to know that you won’t wake up with your children on Christmas morning…and your children won’t wake up with you. I remember it, my eyes are filling up and I feel it in my chest as I type.

Everywhere you look is evidence that you don’t fit and all you can think of is that it wasn’t supposed to be like this and how on earth are you supposed to survive that one day, Christmas Day.

How to survive

The very first thing to remember is that you have every right to feel the way you do, no matter what has gone before, or what you, or anybody else, have done wrong. Acceptance is key to being able to move forward and brings about its own peace.
So, no – it isn’t meant to be like this. As a parent, it is normal to want to be with your children on every day of the year, but especially at Christmas. As a child, it is normal to want to be with your parents on every day of the year, but especially at Christmas. There is nothing abnormal in dreading Christmas, considering your circumstances. Know that you are not alone, that many of us feel the way you do, and many wish the day away as the pain of separation is too much to bear.

 

Contact

If you are able to see your children unsupervised, and depending on your circumstances, there should be nothing stopping you seeing them on Christmas Day. If your children are with relatives (under a Special Guardianship Order, or no Order at all), remember that you will have to fit in around their plans, as they have care of the children. It is very difficult, but very important to be respectful of this, and offer as much give-and-take as you can and not expect too much or come across as “entitled”.

The same applies if your children are in foster care under a Section 20. If this is the case, and you are not in Proceedings, you may very well be able to see your children unsupervised. Speak to your children’s Social Worker as soon as you can; if they say you are unable to see your children unsupervised, ask why. It may be worth taking legal advice at this point as sometimes Local Authorities aren’t quite up-to-date on what powers they do and don’t have under a Section 20. I would absolutely advise though that you do nothing impulsive, or without having first checked out your legal footing.
If you are able to see your children on Christmas Day, try to accept that it may not be the way you want it to be. You might not be able to wake up with them, but that’s not the end of the world, and you are luckier than many who are not able to see their children at all.
Finally, make sure you are well-prepared; for example if you don’t drive and are beyond walking distance, save up enough money for taxis and book them well in advance. Most taxi operators open a booking system for Christmas Day around three weeks beforehand, so get in quick. Money can be tight, so don’t go mad on presents for the children, your presence is worth far far more to them than the killer zombie hamster with a kung-fu grip.

 

If you are unable to see your children without supervision, there may, however, be a number of things to try during the build-up to Christmas. Some of them will be relevant to you, some won’t, but “shy bairns get nowt” as we say up here, so try anything.

As early as possible, try to find out what the arrangements are for Christmas contact between you and your children. If they are in Local Authority care, you should be given a contact schedule in good time (at least a month beforehand). You will almost certainly be given time with your children in the days around Christmas Day and it is likely to be in a contact centre, supervised. However, you can be creative with this, and I’ve listed some ideas below to help:

 

Supervision
If the Local Authority are quite adamant that contact needs to be supervised, whether that be because it is court ordered, written into the children’s care plans, or that they have evidence or concerns, you may have to accept that this is the framework in which you will see your children. However, it is always worth asking – in as much time beforehand as possible – the Social Worker who else may be suitable to supervise the contact session. It may be that someone else could be assessed to supervise the contact, such as a relative or close family friend. The consequence to this is that the contact would be an awful lot more natural, and it may give you a bit of flexibility as a family to think about venue and dates. There’s no promises or guarantees here, but if you never ask, you never get.

Try to be respectful when asking, this may be a new possibility for your Local Authority, which is why it’s so important to ask in good time. Remember, that your children’s cases should be reviewed by an Independent Reviewing Officer every 6 months, just before then may be a good time to have the discussion so that the Team Around The Child (or Care Team, or Core Group as it is also known) can have full involvement. Try to be humble about this too, acting like you are entitled in any way gets people’s backs up and will end up with people feeling cautious and the answer probably being no. Be smart about this; now is not the time to start an argument.

Venue
If you are scheduled to have your Christmas contact with your children in a contact centre, you can always ask the Social Worker – as early as possible – if there are any other options available to your family. Remember that the Local Authority are the Council; they run a number of buildings within your borough and therefore there may be some flexibility around where you can see your children. A contact centre is not the most inviting place to exchange gifts, but equally, you might be a bit uncomfortable doing it in your local library. However, there may well be other options. For example, the local library may have a little room you can use, or your local school may have a community room, or training room. You could ask if there were any rooms to use at the council run swimming pool, or leisure centre and combine the time you have with an activity such as swimming, soft play, or five-a-side. Christmas is a special time of year, and so it’s not too much to ask for your family to have some special time together, no matter who did what to whom.

 

 

However, if you are to have your Christmas contact in a contact centre, supervised by the Local Authority it doesn’t have to be as bad as it sounds. I have had to deal with this with only two of my children for several years now, so I can completely relate to how soul-destroying it is for this to be the only time and context in which you see your children at Christmas. However, I’ve always made sure I’ve prepared well in advance and we’ve made the best of it. I’ve detailed some ideas below that may help:

  • Decorations – ask the staff at the contact centre if you can have access to the room half an hour or so earlier than when your contact session begins. Bring tinsel, beads, garlands, whatever can be wrapped around things in the room quickly. In our old room there used to be tables, chairs, as well as equipment used for training staff, broken items and stuff that didn’t have a home anywhere else. I used to cover it all entirely in gold tinsel, stick lights up and even found festive party games to make (stick the nose on Rudolph always provoked a laugh). If the room looks a little more cheery, it will help to lift your spirits.
  • Food/drink – keep a few quid aside and go to your local supermarket. This time of year there are always party foods which are ready made and your can just stick on a plate which is helpful if you don’t have the room for long beforehand. Bring some fruit juice or fizzy pop and go to a discount shop for Christmas-themed paper plates, cups, tablecloth etc. The children will be glad of a snack, and it can provide a focus once all the present opening is over.
  • Music – it can been deathly quiet around Christmas in contact centres which can affect everyone’s mood, so ask the staff if they have a CD player and any Chrismassy tunes you could borrow. If they don’t the main radio stations will invariably be saturated with Cliff and Wizard.
  • Presents – when you lose your children, you lose your child benefits, child tax credits and anything else relating to them and it can be extremely difficult financially to manage. So it’s really important to only buy what you can afford, and not to worry if some of the presents come from charity shops, or discount stores, or eBay. Most of my children have received gifts like that for most of the Christmases they have been alive! In fact, the presents my children have liked the very best have been homemade ones. I made jewellery for them, decorated boxes, I made photo albums and scrapbooks of our memories together, and they loved them all far more than any other presents.
    So please don’t put pressure on yourself to provide everything under the sun for them – far far more important will be the time you spend with them. It sounds silly, but take time wrapping the presents and writing out cards for your children and then arranging them all nicely in the contact room. Believe me, having been there, it makes all the difference. The children will see the effort you’ve gone to, and what’s inside the packages doesn’t quite matter as much as that.
  • Keep smiling – you may feel extremely emotional and you may feel very angry that you won’t be together on Christmas Day, for whatever reason.
    This is normal.
    Everyone I know who has been through this feels exactly the same. Angry, frustrated, helpless. Couple that with the pressure of Christmas itself and the resentment and jealousy towards others you may also be feeling, it’s really no wonder that emotions run high.
    However. All of that being said. This is not the time to display these emotions. This is the time – without meaning to sound patronising here – to be a grown up. I’m not asking you to be a robot, and it’s overwhelmingly difficult to keep it together when and if your children are crying to come home – I know, I have been in that exact situation. But you absolutely have to keep it together, for their sakes. They need you to be strong, to show them that it’s ok, that Mum and Dad will be ok on Christmas Day (because they will worry about you), and that it’s ok for them to have fun on Christmas day wherever they are and whoever they are with. Of course tell them you will miss them and you wish you could be together, but it’s not possible. Don’t attach blame to this, and don’t tell the children it’s the Social Worker’s or Local Authority’s fault. You can think it – hell, when the children have left you can scream it from the rooftops. But whilst the children are there, make it fun for them, make it special for them, and make it ok for them. I know how hard that is, I have walked far more than a mile in those shoes, but this was something I had to do, for my children. And as hard as it was, I’m glad that I did.

Surviving when you don’t see them

Two years ago, I saw my youngest child, BabyB, on Christmas Eve, and then not again until the 27th December, then the 30th December and the 2nd of January. He was less than six months old. He spent Christmas Day with the Foster Carers and there is a picture in my hall of him dressed up as an Elf on that day, grinning away without a care in the world. He didn’t, doesn’t, and may not ever know (unless he ever reads this!) just how painful that day was. To have some of my children with me – and some not – was nothing short of torturous punishment. As separated families, we perceive that our children must feel the same pain that we do. And I think, if they are older, there’s some truth in that. But I look at that picture everyday, and it makes me smile. Because I’m glad he was happy, I’m glad he didn’t feel the pain I felt that day, I’m glad he didn’t and doesn’t know.

So, how did I get through that festive period? Where all about me seemed full of joy and where everyone around me were with their families, happy and together?

Honestly? I just survived. Some days, barely. Somedays I just wanted to cry all day and didn’t want to go out because I couldn’t take any more happy families. I was seethingly jealous of my friends who all had their children around them. I hated being alone and felt abandoned. I felt it was all my fault, I felt I was being punished, I felt I must deserve this, I felt dirty and horrible and like the worst mother in the world. Then, within the same breath, I felt angry, I felt this was wrong, I knew my baby would come home and I felt like this was just digging the knife in.
In short? I felt everything you feel being separated from your children, magnified by about 5000.

I realise this doesn’t help.

But the way I got through it? I just survived. I took every day 5 minutes at a time. Get through that 5 minutes and you’re on to the next one. I never looked ahead more than 5 minutes.
I read, I read and read and read case after case on Bailii and Family Law Week, and SuesspiciousMinds and PinkTape Blogs, learning about the law. Then, when I had to stop reading, I distracted myself, watched crappy DVDs and documentaries (ask me anything about the First World War!), I did puzzles on my phone, I read lighthearted books I hadn’t read for years. I took long showers and washed my hair and did my nails.I tried my best not to isolate myself, as it doesn’t help. I didn’t drink and had just quit smoking, so I tried and managed to stay teetotal. I tried to eat regularly, I tried to sleep regularly, I tried my best to look after myself because I was important too.

So that is the best advice I can give to you. Just survive, just get through it. There are no magic formulas, nothing I can say will take your pain away. If I could, believe you me, I would – in a heartbeat. But I can’t. So just know that you are not alone but that you can, you will and you must, just survive.

Sending you all my warmest Christmas wishes

xxx

 

Guest Post – Advice for parents from an experienced foster carer

A must-read post from a lady I have “met” on Twitter and who goes by the name of @suddenly_mummy to avoid identification. She is a foster carer giving her experienced point of view, and some truly invaluable advice to parents who have had their babies and toddlers removed. I’m really grateful to her for taking the time to do this and would urge any parent going through Proceedings to read.
~ SafeguardingSurvivor

 

As a short-term and emergency foster carer of children aged 0-3, my home is often the first foster placement a child will experience. For the child’s parents, this is often their first experience of having a child in foster care too. Together, we must all navigate this strange, confusing and often frightening world.

 

From early in the foster care placement, contact sessions can be enormously emotionally charged experiences for family members and children, both positive and negative. Can I give any useful advice to parents in this situation? I can only speak from my own experience and observations over the last four and a half years of fostering. I hope that I can share something that will be helpful.

 

I’ll start by saying that I believe that contact is the first rung on the ladder for parents. Social workers will ask all kinds of things of parents, most of which the foster carer will not even know about, but attendance at contact is so, so important because it shows that the parent can do the hard thing in spite of everything, putting their children’s needs above their own.

 

Even very young children – even tiny babies – feel the effects if contacts are missed. Unfortunately, contacts cannot always be arranged at a time that fits well with a little baby’s routine, and it’s hard on them to be woken from their nap, taken to a strange place, made to wait around for 15 minutes and then be taken away again. Feeds and naps are out of place, parent and baby miss vital bonding time, and parent misses out on an opportunity to care for their baby and keep up with their ever-changing needs and routines. The connection between them weakens, and there is the danger that the parent will feel (and appear) less and less confident about their ability to successfully care for the baby should they return home. At contacts, I can keep parents updated on their baby’s changing needs and the milestones they have achieved. I try to help parents anticipate upcoming milestones in the hope that they might have the slight chance of being the first to see their baby roll over, sit or stand during a contact. It is sad when this can’t happen due to missed contacts.

 

With toddlers, it’s a different scenario. They soon learn that the door of the contact centre means Mummy and/or Daddy, so even if I don’t tell them where we are going, they work it out when we arrive. If I have to bring them home again without seeing anybody, they know it. Many times I have carried a toddler away while they have fought against me and screamed “Mummy! Mummy!” over and over again. It is very hard on the child. Children are often distressed at the end of contacts as they face their loss over and over again, but the distress at being given hope and seeing it dashed is worse. Over time, a sort of resigned acceptance sets in. The child begins to expect the let down, the disappointment, and no longer gets excited in advance of contacts. This is even sadder.

 

While I have had my fair share of missed contacts, I know that most parents will move heaven and earth to get to see their children, even though the sessions can feel unnatural and sometimes distressing for everybody involved. When it comes to making contacts easier for a child, I am reluctant to tell birth parents what they should and shouldn’t do as each situation is so individual. Some things that happen at contact can be inconvenient for foster carers, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that parents shouldn’t do them. For instance, when a child comes away from contact with lots of sweets and presents and the other children at my home aren’t getting those things it can certainly cause some conflict! But that is for the foster carer to manage and I know that when parents bring gifts it is because they have been thinking about their child all week.

 

But sometimes, things that are inconvenient for the foster carer can also be hard on the children. Lots of sweets, fizzy drinks and presents being brought to contact can make the whole thing feel like some sort of party for the child and they come away hyped up by it all, often bouncing off the walls for the rest of the day, and then feeling down for the next couple of days. Contact is the only opportunity for parents to treat their children, I know, but I also worry about the impression it gives to contact supervisors who are, as we know, making notes throughout. I have seen many a raised eyebrow from a contact supervisor over gifts like sugar dummies and massive bags of sweets. I can only imagine what goes in the notes. Perhaps instead of buying new things, parents might sometimes like to consider bringing items from home that may be significant for their child and help them to feel more settled. Nearly all the children I have cared for have arrived with only the clothes on their backs, losing all their teddies, comfort items, favourite toys, favourite clothes, etc. Of course we make sure they have what they need, but we can’t replace their familiar things. I would make a point of returning any items with the child if they were returning home at the end of the placement and, if they didn’t go home, they would be important memory box items for the child. It is sad to send a child to adoption without a single item from their lives with their birth parents to take with them.

 

The relationship between the parents and the foster carer can be a difficult one, especially at the start. I wonder if it would help parents to know that, in my experience anyway, we foster carers have virtually no say in anything. We aren’t invited to most of the meetings and, although we attend LAC reviews and write reports for them, we hand the report in to the IRO at the review – it isn’t even taken into account before the meeting. I write a daily log that almost nobody ever looks at. I rarely hear about what goes on during contact. I am very rarely asked for my opinion on anything by a child’s social worker. All this is by way of saying that there is nothing to be lost for a parent in communicating as well as they can with the foster carer. We are not mini social workers. We don’t make any decisions about your child’s care plan and we are not there to assess or judge.

 

I want to do the best job possible of caring for the children that come into my home. I really need the children’s family to communicate with me to help with this. I keep a communications book which I pass to the family members at every contact with information about what their child has been doing, any milestones achieved or notable moments. I find it helpful if parents write a few words in reply, if they have time. There often isn’t much opportunity to talk at contact handover times.

 

Children need ‘permission’ from their family members to settle and relax in their foster home. This means that even if the adults are unsure about each other at the start, it is important that we all get along in front of the children. I understand that this is very hard for parents who may just desperately want their children home with them again, but it is a sacrifice that will make the whole situation easier on your children. On my part, I also have to show children my ‘approval’ of their parents and family, speaking respectfully about them and keeping positive about contacts. I try to build friendly relationships with parents so that children are spared any conflict of emotions, and so that the eventual transition back home can be as smooth as possible. In the past, I have supervised additional contacts in preparation for transition home for young children, supporting parents in taking on the care of the child, taking parents with me when shopping for a child’s first shoes. Foster carers will feel more confident in doing this if good relationships have already been established.

 

In the interests of maintaining good relationships (and I know that there will be foster carers that can be hard to get on with!), I think it’s helpful for a parent to come to terms early on with the fact that the foster carer will probably have a different style and different parenting priorities to theirs, simply because everyone is different. While a parent should always say something if they have a welfare or safeguarding concern, there are perhaps some issues that could best be left alone. I cared for a little girl whose Mum took delight in dressing her hair in elaborate styles and would say something negative about the way I had done her hair at nearly every contact handover which, over time, did cause a bit of tension between us. I knew that this child’s Mum just wanted to still feel like her Mum, despite her loss of control over everything, but it made handovers awkward for all of us, including her child. There are so many benefits for the children to maintaining a good relationship between parents and foster carers that adults on both sides sometimes just need to choose not to mention things unless absolutely necessary. Children should never hear the adults in their lives speaking critically about or towards each other.

 

I am always aware of walking a line between supporting a parent in caring for their child, and patronising a parent, especially if the child is a tiny baby who has been removed very young. I would like to think that an inexperienced mum could talk to me about their child’s basic care needs but I know that this might be difficult, so if a foster carer is talking to an inexperienced mum about feeding or nappy changing I would hope the mum wouldn’t feel offended. The foster carer doesn’t mean to ‘take over’, but minor errors in basic care during contact will all be written down somewhere, and that could be avoided if the mum had a little advice. Normally a young mum’s own mum would do this, but most of the young mums I have met have had little or no constructive contact with their families and nobody to really help them. I would hate for an inexperienced mum to have a bad mark against her because she didn’t wind her child after feeding, or didn’t manage a soiled nappy very well or something, when really, she perhaps just needed to be shown. The assessments can sometimes be rather unforgiving.

 

Some of what I have written here may not apply to your situation. Some may seem irrelevant. Some may seem obvious. But my first and last piece of advice to parents of children in foster care would be to turn up to contact. Every time. And if you really, really can’t make it, phone up in good time so that your child isn’t sitting in some featureless room waiting to be disappointed. Everything else can be sorted out as we go along.

~ @suddenly_mummy