In this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, a middle aged man year straps himself into a helmet and starts to learn to skateboard. He’s rubbish. Obviously. He skids, he falls, he shows himself up at the skateboard park, he watches YouTube videos at work. At home, he gets sympathetic looks from his partner while she cooks, dresses the tree, and wraps presents. Progress is painfully slow – and painful – but eventually, after weeks of “fail again, fail better”, he manages to kick flip the skateboard up from the ground and catch it. Hoorah.
That’s not the end of the advert though. The doorbell rings, and we realise who this has all been for. A social worker stands in the doorway with a young girl clutching a skateboard. She looks petrified but sees behind the man, a skateboard in the hall. Our hero holds up his bandaged wrist. “I skate a bit too,” he says in a moment of massive understatement.
As they walk inside this warm and welcoming home, a message appears on screen: “Over 108,000 children in the UK are in the care system. We’re making a long-term commitment to support the futures of young people from care.”
I almost cheered when I saw it. I couldn’t quite believe that, at last, something about children in the care system (the actual term is “looked after children”) has found its way into the mainstream, into perhaps the most famous advertising slot of the year and therefore – possibly, hopefully, eventually – into the consciousness of the general public.
The advert rightfully shows the kind of child who will struggle to find a long term adoptive or foster family. The girl at the door is not a baby or toddler. She’s an older child, maybe 11 or 12 and – with good reason – she isn’t smiling. This might be her third or seventh foster placement, it might be her first, she will probably know her mother, father, siblings and miss them, be worried about them and not fully understand why she’s in care in the first place. All of this is written on her face. But what we know from our intrepid skateboarder is that this is not a man who will give up at the first hurdle.
Of those 108,000 children in care about 40 percent are between 10 and 15. They most likely will need and want some kind of contact with their birth family and will, as a bare minimum, have experienced the trauma of loss and broken attachment. All children deserve the kind of love and commitment shown by the man in this advert, and sadly too many of them don’t get it. Why? Lack of investment in social care, decimated mental health services for children and families, too few foster families who may lack professional support due to overworked and undervalued social workers on the front line of an underfunded welfare system.
Christmas is a difficult time for children in care and for young people who have been in care. Every year, the Christmas Dinner Project provides an amazing Christmas Day for care leavers and this charity, along with many others – including those mentioned at the end of the advert, Action for Children and Who Cares? Scotland – need support, volunteers and hard cash. These are brilliant organisations doing their best to plug the many holes in the system, themselves reliant on goodwill and scant public funds. And there are people like our advert couple, committed to changing the lives of looked after children but more are needed. Many more.
Thank you John Lewis. It’s a great start.
Kit de Waal is the author of “My Name is Leon”, a novel about a young boy in foster care. She was born in Birmingham to a Caribbean father and an Irish mother, who was a foster carer. She worked for fifteen years in criminal and family law, sits on adoption panels, and has advised Social Services on the care of foster children.