Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Ghosts of Christmases Past

"How I wish that every day were Christmas, what a nice way to spend the year." I applaud the sentiment Shaky but from all I have seen, heard and read about over the last few weeks there are plenty of looked after children, adoptees, care leavers and their carers, parents and friends who would disagree with you.

Christmas can be tough. It is tough if you find it hard to cope without structure and routine, tough if you are alone, tough if you are forced to live away from your family, tough if your memories of family life are filled with trauma, abuse and neglect. Let's face it for the average person it is stressful enough, so no wonder it is a time of year when our young people struggle.

I have three care leavers in my life, in fact one of them is currently in the next room watching Criminal Minds, fussing the cat and eating mince pies, the other two are in custody over the festive period. All three have their own issues with Christmas.

R grew up in a permanent foster placement where he was treated differently to the rest of the family. He still sees himself as second best. Spending Christmas alone would be easier for him than telling his friends or family that he would like to join in, he wouldn't expect them to care very much. He is hard to engage, there will barely be a thank you for the gifts I have carefully chosen and I won't be sure if he liked them or not. It looks like bad manners but I don't think he knows how he is expected to react and is worried he will get it wrong and anyway, he doesn't really think he deserves a present.

OT is in prison for Christmas again. He has spent 6 out of the last 7 Christmases inside. He is a big kid about Christmas, his greatest wish when he lived here two years ago was to manage to stay out of custody for Christmas and New Year. He managed it that year but the stress of deciding whether to spend the day with me or with his family got so amplified in his head that he absconded for three days and didn't celebrate Christmas anywhere. When he reappeared we talked it through and he bravely visited his family to try to explain. His mum had already given his gifts to his brother and sister and his parents haven't spoken to him since.

YT is in prison for Christmas for the first time and I think he is relieved. He is from a large family and mum always struggled to cope with them all in school holidays. Christmas meant fights, drunkenness, expectations to behave and have a nice time. Since age 13 he has been arrested on every Christmas Day, and often left in a cell for quite a while missing the bulk of the celebration.

I know a lot of the people reading this have adopted. You are not strangers to the difficulties that the sensory overload of this time of year can cause, for children who have experienced trauma. The three young people I have described are examples of those who grew up without the love, patience and understanding of families like the ones you provide. Most of the emotional dysregulation, meltdowns and other difficult behaviours that you deal with daily are still an issue for them now in young adulthood. They weren't taught to cope, hence the 20% of prisoners who are care-experienced. The job you all do is life transforming, trust me, I see the alternative.

So no, I don't wish it could be Christmas every day. Once a year is challenge enough.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

All that yummy stuff

"Remember Onesie Night?" YT (Younger Teen) asked me this today during my visit to the prison. I remember it very well. It was one evening last winter and the boy was bored, which generally results in him going out and getting up to something antisocial. We were already dressed for bed, in not-quite-matching onesies that he had insisted on putting in the trolley last time we went grocery shopping. Searching for a diversion, something - anything, I suggested we drive to the 24 hour supermarket a few miles away to buy a DVD and some pick and mix. So that's what we did...still in onesies. We behaved like naughty, overgrown children in a virtually empty ASDA and then returned home to watch Karate Kid and eat Haribo under a duvet on the sofa. It is one of my most treasured memories of my time with YT so I'm not sure why it surprised me that he remembered it fondly too.

For OT (Older Teen) the memory he has of his time placed with me, almost two years ago, is the evening I dragged him out into the back garden to point out the International Space Station passing overhead. He happened to be home at the right time, I thought he might get a kick out of spotting it, I thought it was just one of those things that hadn't made much impact, but two years later out of nowhere he says "Remember when you showed me that space thing in the back garden? I think about that a lot."

I made a point of going out to eat regularly with both boys, OT was bemused by this and YT very anxious to begin with, it wasn't something either did much with their families. Both nominally ended up in care due to their challenging behaviour, always the tip of the iceberg in my experience, so were rarely taken anywhere where they might show their parents up. Actually whenever I went to a pub or restaurant with either of them they behaved impeccably. I arranged outings too, which I don't think Supported Living Carers do that often given that we are only paid to provide board and lodging, but I got a kick out of seeing their enjoyment. OT liked going with me to the cinema, YT loved the skate park and enjoyed it far more with an enthusiastic audience member.

I suppose the reason I really did it was to give them memories like the ones they recalled in the visits hall. The training officer for my LA used to talk about giving the children and young people in our care cuddles, quality time, play "and all that yummy stuff." When your charges are 16+ you don't really expect to be doing that. I teach that age group and most would do anything to avoid a day out or evening in with their significant adult but not so with care-experienced young people. Both of my lads would spend time with me over time with the PlayStation, their mates or girlfriends because an interested adult is a novelty. Even at 16 and 18 they were still seeking that connection with a caring parental figure.

So for now prison visits are all we have, memories of time shared in the past. Next year they are both due for release and I'm looking forward to creating new memories with them both, lots more "yummy stuff."