Comment: Taking a break
The summer holiday period is renowned the world over. Bands have written songs about it and countless TV shows, books and movies make use of the summer as a backdrop for coming of age stories which are deeply embedded within our cultural narrative.
Across Scotland, children and young people are beginning their own summer breaks. Some look forward to staycations or a summer of activities with their friends and family. For many more children across Scotland, summer brings for them a different experience that you won’t see immortalised in song or on screen.
One in four children in Scotland are living in poverty, and 70 per cent of those children live in homes where at least one parent works. This sickly storybook summer isn’t a reality for at least a quarter of all children and young people in our country.
For working families experiencing poverty already, there are the annual conversations about whether to pay for childcare, find some kind of alternative arrangement, or say no to vital shifts which help pay the bills and keep food on the table.
For those with a more fortunate financial position, the conversation may focus on finding appropriate childcare at a cost-effective price, as even a financial advantage doesn’t necessarily fulfil the needs of a modern family.
In the shadow of COVID-19 and the financial cost, it’s clear that for most families in Scotland there will be some form of struggle to cope throughout the summer months, perhaps worse than ever before.
The Scottish Government has issued local authorities across Scotland with funding as a means to plug some of this gap.
In fact, my own cousin, who lives with my mum, is making use of that funding in a Glasgow youth group, which will allow him the opportunity to experience new things, spend time with his friends and explore the full potential that summer break can bring a young imagination.
It’s something which might just help bridge the gap. However, with a gap from the stability of school something else looms large in the minds of families on the edge: scrutiny and judgement.
All across the country, families will be living in fear at the thought of outside intervention which might see their children removed into the care system, a worry which plunges families across Scotland, struggling to keep afloat, into fearing the very system which is supposed to support them.
Whatever happens this summer, we need to fundamentally redesign how we approach these large periods of instability for families. With this, we need to understand whether the summer break needs to be shortened or what support we can provide to ensure it is indeed a break. This is a long-term piece of work, which has to start now.
However, one area we can improve upon and should improve upon is the very different circumstances care-experienced children and young people find themselves in.
As a child, I got caught up in the frenzy of summer activity planning. I daydreamed about what I might get up to and revelled in the stories told by classmates, of trips to warmer climates and restaurants filled with exotic food. The stories they told were very different from my reality.
I came to realise quite quickly that I was a burden in the summer months. My case notes spoke about the need for a break from me. This practice is known as respite, a term which the Independent Review of Care said needs to be binned.
What that meant for me was being sent to live with a foster carer who had a room for a period of the summer. The family I lived with spared no blushes about their entitlement and talked openly about the holiday they were about to embark upon, without me. This practice is still too pervasive in Scotland’s care provision.
It would be easy to get caught up in the language of employment, something which many foster carers whose primary motivator is financial will attempt to reason with you about.
Think instead, of how you would feel, if by some circumstance your children had to be cared for within Scotland’s foster care system and whether you’d be happy at the thought of them being left behind whilst the rest of the family jetted off on their holiday.
Within The Promise, the document detailing the conclusions of the Independent Care Review, it was said that Scotland needs to rethink the nature and purpose of these short breaks. It was a document which was signed up to unanimously and without question throughout Scotland’s social care sector.
Yet this summer, children across Scotland will be shipped from one foster carer to another, as the family they live with leave for a holiday without them.
All of this leads me to the inevitable conclusion – wherever you are in Scotland, it’s clear that for many children, whether they’re in care, living in poverty or with parents struggling to stay afloat, the summer break is often the thing that breaks them.