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CHILD HOLIDAY PROJECT STUMBLES
What is the problem?
At any one time there are over 35,000 children in care in the United Kingdom. In almost all cases the children are in care because of the failings of the adults who brought them into the world. The adults often have difficulty with alcohol and substance abuse or in other ways display very bad parenting. The local council obviously tries to help with various forms of intervention but eventually persuades a court that the local authority must become the effective parent. The numbers of children in care is increasing, and there is a desperate shortage of appropriate foster parents.
There are also thousands of children for whom fostering is not appropriate. Teenagers are often not cute, and have the physical strength to make their inner unhappiness evident. The inner turmoil comes from their bad experiences in their birth family, and sometimes there is also a chain of broken foster relationships.
These children end up living in small institutions of three to six children. Given the strength and unpredictability of violent outbursts by disturbed teenagers a minimum of three staff must be on duty at all times. There are 168 hours in a week, so with a 35 hour working week it takes slightly more than 4 shifts to maintain a continuous presence. With a minimum of three staff on duty this means there are 12 or more people involved in their residential care..
There is a spectrum of kids in residential care. Some are no more challenging than your own teenage children are/were/will be, and some are very demanding indeed.
Remember that these children are children. Many of them have faced while still only children situations that we as adults would find extraordinarily difficult, These range from unremitting violence and sexual abuse through neglect hunger and despair, with emotional traumas of giving evidence against their parents or worrying about their parents their siblings and themselves. Now that the pressure is removed or reduced all the bottled up emotions are surfacing. It is now actually safe to emote, to swear, to use your physical strength. Add adolescent hormones to the pot and one has a teenager it is very hard to love.
It is likely that during their childhood and teenage years they had difficulty with their schoolmates. To avoid being bullied they frequently became aggressive and truculent.
The children are discriminated against in many ways. The family frequently were always poor, and often lived in rough districts. Their emotional development was not normal.
Most children in Britain have the experience of a holiday. They may be involved in selecting the destination or they may simply be taken on the holiday with their parents. Usually they will experience beaches and swimming pools, a change from all the normal routines, and the undivided attention of parents or parent for a couple of weeks. The holiday atnosphere in part consists of meeting new friends, doing things that are not normally possible like riding a camel or visiting a zoo, and a complete change from one's normal life. Relatuionships with the family subtly alter. Most people enjoy a holiday.
Children in care need this holiday experience. It is part of everyone else's life experience, and to try to give them as normal a life as possible the children need to have a holiday. We may sometimes criticise the "entitlement" society, but I do not think anyone would begrudge these children a decent holiday.
Booking a holiday
A child or group of children will be accompanied by two or three adults. The first problem is to find accommodation. Many holiday providers will not accept a booking for looked after children and carers. Their rationale is that people paying good money for a peaceful holiday do not wish to share the venue with people who swear and shout. Swearing and shouting is part of the looked after child's negotiating armoury, along with other unsocial behavior. Even my generally delightful teenagers had their moments - these children unfortunately have many more such moments.
Those venues that will take the kids may have six or seven groups of these delightful youngsters on the site, who either form one large loud aggressive group or form two such groups. Oh joy!
A further problem is that the accommodation is designed for "traditional" families. The knife drawer does not lock - but some of the children are self harmers. Or harm each other - sometimes only threatening each other. Some teenagers have hollow legs and will steal any food that is not locked away. A child can create a mess in the toilet area, deny all knowledge - and a staff member has to clear it up because it is the sole bathroom. This game can be repeated every day.
The bedrooms are not lockable so the children can "borrow" each others and the staff's toiletries, creating areas for argument and disagreement. In this situation the staff have to work very hard just to contain the situation, and have no time or energy for building deeper relationships and nurturing.
How we became involved
My wife and I had previously given no thought to the problems of children in care or of organising holidays for looked after children. It was not on our radar.
We had a friend for dinner who worked with looked after children. Over coffee she discussed the fact that she had to organise a holiday for the teenagers and how difficult it was.
"If I won the Lottery I would buy a villa in Portugal and adapt it for children in care."
She went on to explain that Portugal is reliably sunny, pretty cheap, and only 2 hours by plane. The most difficult kids could not come because their carers would not risk travelling with the children - a journey time with checkin two hours in advance and car journeys at each end.
Many of the problems can be designed out. If each child has a bedroom with built in "wet area" which has shower toilet and washbasin, if all the bedrooms can be locked to prevent "borrowing", if the kitchen can be locked - a lot of trouble is designed out. The property needs to be detached and ideally with no neigbours. Provided one selects the right property to begin with the conversion is straightforward. There is a desperate need, and the villa will be nearly fully booked.
My wife is a real wizard at DIY, and we had been looking at retiring to the sunshine. We realised we could afford to buy and convert a villa by borrowing against our ample equity. If the villa was a success my wife could build a chain of them, and if it was not a success we would have a 5 bedroom villa to retire to. It seemed a "can't lose" proposition..
Finding a property
Using several estate agents we found a property that would do. It was a 1960 or so built traditional Portuguese property with 4 rooms and a bathroom, with an adega close by. An adega is where the Portuguese make bottle and store their wine.We could build a short bridge to the adega and incorporate the adega into the villa.That would give us plenty of space. We bought the property, but that process took a long time because the family selling the property quarrelled ferociously with each other, delaying the sale by months.
When we eventually contacted an architect we found we had problems. The property does not have a habitation licence. The local authority would treat the development as a "new build" because of its scale. This meant the property had to comply with all the rules for a new development like triple glazing, double walls, solar panels, disabled access and statutory bathroom. The statutory bathroom is accessible to all and has bath shower bidet loo and washbasin. We were also hit by the rules for bedrooms. The master bedroom had to be of a certtain size, bedroom two slightly smaller, and all bedrooms of a minimum size. On the positive side the storage area above the villa could have its roof lifted and create a two bedroom flat above, which might come in handy.
The estimate for the rebuild was over £100,000, much more than we had expected. And as builders in Portugal are registered my wife could not do the work herself unless she registered as a builder, which would involve obtaining trade qualifications in Portugal. We were reluctant to borrow the shortfall money because we like to be financially conssrvative.
We had to put the idea on hold.
Time Goes By
Our personal situation changed. My wife was retired from local government as part of the financial cuts made by Government. She now has the time to DIY a renovation. We are doing a small scale renovation on the original villa so as to have as a base for living in Portugal.
Now we have discovered that the sleepy village road which was incredibly quiet when we visited is a noisy rat run in the morning and in the early evening. The church bell rings four times an hour, and sets the village dogs off when it rings. And we are on the shady side of the street. Thank goodness we did not invest a further £100,000 on this property.
We have decided to continue renovating the villa as a base for us and as a small two bedroom villa to lend out to friends and relations. We will demolish the adega to create more garden area and use the hard floor as hard standing for off road parking. Demolishing the adega should generate more light. Installing double glazing should reduce the noise.
When we have sold our house in England we will seek out a property that already has a habitation licence. We will pay more for it, but we can buy and adapt a property ourselves for about £70,000.
And our Portuguese accountant has offered a property to our project. it has a habitation licence. He has to renovate it anyway so the additional costs for our project are unimportant. If we can give him a steady flow of lets he will be very happy. So hopefully the project will begin in 2012!