A boy plays with his penguin (a real penguin), his penguin is his life. Safe in his family he is able to do all the things he wants to.
But his penguin is sad, the love of the boy is not enough, he wants a mate, a penguin-pal of his own. Through the magic of Christmas (and his parents) the boy gives him his heart’s desire and all is well.
The John Lewis Christmas advert ends with the revelation that the penguin was only real in the imagination of the boy – but it has shown us the power of dreams and by extension their importance in the development of children’s minds.
The gift to the boy is also a gift to the penguin and, in closing the circle, to the family who made it possible. The John Lewis world is safe, secure, loving: it is the world that we all dream of inhabiting, free from conflict, pain and despair.
But this is not the world of many of our families, children and young people. Poverty, physical and psychological traumas and miserable lives blight too many families. They prevent some parents from giving their children the home environments they need to develop into happy, rounded adults.
In these situations the state sometimes has to move in to try to provide the love and stability that all children need. Sometimes this is timely and results in long term placement with foster carers or adopters who can give the child the best possible chance of growing up to realise his or her potential. In a minority of situations the best or only available placement for a child or young person is a residential care home.
Residential care has, over the years, attracted much criticism (some very warranted) and strenuous efforts have been made to place as many children as possible in foster care. But there is no doubt that residential care can provide the care, support and love that children and young people need to thrive; it can offer the best environment for meeting their needs. It doesn’t offer “family life”, but for a substantial number of children, who are estranged from their birth families for a wide range of reasons, it provides the only family that they have.
So you would be forgiven for assuming that these most vulnerable children and young people would be legally entitled to the best care possible: that if extra resources were to be found they would be directed at them.
When parents wave their children goodbye as they leave to go to university, or further study, or even work, away from home, they rarely close the door and withdraw their care, support and love from them.
But this is what happens all too often to 16, 17 and 18 year olds who leave a residential placement. They lose not only their physical home, but just as importantly they lose their emotional home and support. They lose the adults who might keep them and their concerns in mind: who might be available to help them to deal with the physical, emotional and financial crises that beset us all as we strive to develop as individuals.
Research studies show that one-third of young people with care backgrounds experience homelessness at some stage between six and 24 months after leaving care (Stein, 2010) and that 20% of homeless young people have been in care (Centrepoint 2010).
In December 2013, to its great credit, the Coalition Government acted to enable young people in foster care to stay in their placement up to the age of 21 (so called “Staying Put”) if they and their carers so wished. But a failure of nerve or imagination resulted in the same right to stay put being denied to young people in residential care.
And so the campaign “Every Child Leaving Care Matters” was born http://everychildleavingcarematters.blogspot.co.uk/ (ECLCM is a campaign group, without funding or political affiliations with any other group, formed to stop Government discrimination against children in residential care who want support to 21, the same as those in foster care).
What happens to our children if they find that life in the wider world is tougher, more costly, more difficult to navigate than they had imagined in the safety and warmth of their home? Well if your children are anything like mine they ring up, or turn up on the doorstep asking for support, guidance and often a “loan”. Sometimes they want to come home to stay while they build up their strengths and reserves to face the struggle again.
And we welcome them back gladly, because we know that it is in their interests and, therefore, in ours to do so. Some stay for a few days, some for weeks, and others for months. As parents we try to be flexible. This flexibility is all that ECLCM is asking for on behalf of those young people who have been in residential care – the same opportunities that the Government has deemed appropriate for those in foster care.
In the John Lewis world, the grown-ups (parents, social workers, care workers, the government) know from their deep relationship with the child (and his penguin) what they need and act to ensure that these needs are met. Young people in residential care may appear more complex and more difficult to read; their needs may be more conflicting and complex, but it’s not rocket science to work out that having the opportunity to be understood and cared for as long as necessary will be in everyone’s interests. And treating them in the same way as their peers in foster care is surely only fair and just.
The latest figures show that in March 2013 there were just over 68,000 children and young people England in care (this figure does not include those who have been adopted).
For just under 7,000 of these a foster or adoptive placement was not possible, suitable or available and they were placed in residential care.
Tom Adams is the retired chief executive of Children North East and Chair of Streetwise Young People’s Project in Newcastle. He is guesting for George Hepburn this week. George will be back in the New Year.