The John Lewis Christmas advert was met with rapturous applause by people across the UK as it rolled out last week. But in not-so small corners of the country, children and families who had experienced the realities of Britain’s troubled care system grew upset and angry, and began to file complaints with the retailer.
The advert, which shows a man learning to skateboard, and then later, along with his partner, welcomes a child from the care system into their home who also likes to skateboard, touched people deeply. And no wonder. It’s rose-tinted view of carers, and the system in which they operate, left viewers feeling that the young girl had found her ‘forever home’.
What most viewers watching the advert would not have known, is that the implied idea of a ‘forever family’ in the advert, is a myth. Research from England’s Children’s Commissioner in 2019 tells us that children are being bounced around the care system at unprecedented levels, with one child reported to have gone through 57 placements alone. A 2018 review by the government on the state of foster care in Britain found that 26% of foster care placements that ended had lasted less than a month, 48% had lasted between a month and a year; and 12% had lasted between one and two years. Only 13% of placements had lasted for more than two years.
That turmoil is often underscored by life-changing maltreatment. More than 1,500 children in the care system filed complaints of abuse at the hands of their foster carers between 2020 and 2021. A further 1,015 complaints about suspected child abuse perpetrated by foster carers were made by “other sources” according to Ofsted’s “Fostering in England” release. Those figures are likely to be conservative. Many children being abused in care are too afraid to speak out, anxious that they might be returned to the bowels of the care system and left to languish in one of our many underperforming and loveless children’s homes.
It is no surprise that this amount of disruption and abuse is leaving countless children in a worse state than when the care system found them. Research in 2019 by Christian Munthe, a bioethics professor at Gothenburg University in Sweden and eight additional academics, found that foster care adversely affected children in both the short term and the long term. The study reviewed 28 publications about 18 interventions including 5,357 children. The researchers discovered that hardly any studies concluded that young adults who had grown up in foster care had better outcomes when compared to peers raised in ‘adverse’ birth family environments. Those that did, cited only neutral outcomes. The researchers also found that no study had assessed the tools used for foster parent selection.
Back to the advert.
John Lewis pledged to support care experienced people in the ad, offering them apprenticeships, employment opportunities, amplifying the voices of children in care, and working long-term with organisations inside the care system.
The advert was produced in collaboration with two charities, who also advised John Lewis: Who Cares Scotland, a support service for children in care offering advocacy and information; and Action For Children (AFC), which profits from matching children with foster carers.
Action for Children’s latest annual report showed that the charity raised £16.2 million last year, had a total income of £142.6 million, and an expenditure of £139 million. Within their total income, AFC also received £86,502,000 from 295 government contracts and £114,000 from one government grant. The charity has 4,498 employees. A breakdown of incomes for their employees earning over £60,000 can be seen in the diagram below.
The question of profit-making and ‘fat-cat’ salaries inside sectors which support vulnerable people has been hotly debated for decades, along with the ethical implications of charities running like businesses. But perhaps one of the biggest and most troubling issues with the care system itself, is that it has come under scrutiny for the staggeringly high numbers of children being targeted by social services, which peaked this year at almost 400,000 children, while more than 80,000 of these children were placed in care. Unfathomable numbers which inexplicably continue to rise.
Isabelle Trowler, the country’s chief social worker, admitted that too many babies and children were being removed from families unnecessarily, in a 2021 article by The Times. She branded the practice “an injustice” in the face of effective solutions which could ensure children were safely supported at home with their natural families.
As the advert made its way across social media platforms, care experienced families who had lost their children to care reacted angrily to the content. Others said the advert was triggering and caused them to break down in tears, as the memories of abuse they suffered in foster care came back to them.
One poster on Twitter said, “This has really made me feel very angry been a birth mum. But also my child could watch this n make her feel all them emotions that surrounds been adopted.”
Another mother said, “Just reading the posts about the ad has been triggering for me. I haven’t been able to watch it myself. It should have a warning or at least a helpline for anyone affected by it, like programmes do when it covers a sensitive subject. Contrary to what I was told by a GP I have not got used to “the new normal”. Especially at this time of year it is extremely difficult.”
Another tweeter explained, “It angers me because my son was sexually abused while in foster care,” while another added, “profiteering from trauma is never acceptable let alone exploiting that trauma.”
Kevin Campbell, a US-based child protection, children’s mental health, and health system expert and the founder of the Center for Family Finding and Youth Connectedness said, “Demeaning and ultimately harmful public communication reaffirms a centuries-old message that ordinary superheroes are needed to rescue children from bad people. In the video a lovely home, Christmas tree/ gifts, and plenty of available time and resources to be a “better” family.”
Other social media users were supportive of the advert, including directors of children’s homes and foster carers.
A care experienced user said, “I can’t stress this enough: if this upsets my birther then good, it’s served two objectives.”
Another added, “I acknowledge this must be hard for parents, regardless of perceptions of right/wrong, who have had their children taken away. I also acknowledge this makes children in care and care leavers feel seen, which is powerful, and makes people outside of all this think twice.”
One foster carer said, “Foster carers do a fantastic job. If I was a bio parent knowing that my child was experiencing love in a family like that would give me comfort. Direct your anger at the systems that cannot identify real abusive parents not John Lewis.”
Another tweeter noted, “More should be done to keep children with families when that’s safe. But this ad & @JohnLewisRetail work to involve #cep [care experienced people] in its design is not about that. It’s not tokenism; they are employing #cep too & have other good initiatives. As a care leaver, I’m moved by it.”
Researching Reform has seen several complaints which have been sent in to John Lewis since the advert first aired. One complaint said:
“Dear John Lewis, whilst it’s admirable that your Christmas ad is supporting a good cause, I wondered whether you considered the negative impact this will have on families which are struggling at this time of year?
Not every child in care is unloved or unwanted, contrary to what the public may believe. I turned to Action for Children when I was in need of support. I was a responsible parent, wanting the best for my children.
Rather than receiving support at home it was easier for children services to remove my children from the only home they had ever known and place them in foster care. The first Christmas apart was horrendous, but at least I hoped it was temporary.
The second Christmas was just as bad because all hope of a reunion had been quashed by the family court.
I had always treated my children at Christmas – going to pantomimes, ice skating. It was a special time for us as a family. So to see ads of happy families on the TV was particularly painful. Featuring a ‘foster parent’ in your ad this year is too close to home.”
Speaking to Researching Reform about the advert, John Lewis said:
“While the vast majority of comments we’ve had from care experienced people have been positive we are very sorry that some people have found our ad upsetting.
We were very mindful of the impact our ad could have on people with experience of care and we didn’t take this lightly. We consulted many people with lived experience as well as leading charities to get their views and feedback. We sought feedback from those charities about the use of a trigger warning and they didn’t believe that was necessary given the due diligence we had done and the level of engagement with the community.
We know from our Partners who are care experienced and the organisations that we work with that many young people who have experienced care as children can often feel isolated and forgotten, particularly at Christmas. That’s why we wanted to use the public moment of our Christmas advert to shine a light on children and young people who’ve been in care.
We want everyone who is care experienced to feel seen this Christmas and to use our platform as a household name and a retailer to directly support children in care and young people leaving care.
We are also very aware that not all care experience outcomes are as positive as Ellie’s in the advert. Ellie’s story is one portrait and our broader campaign also features authentic voices of carers and care experienced young people with different experiences of a complex care system.”
Commenting on the advert, Anne Neale, from the mothers and children’s rights movement Support Not Separation told Researching Reform:
“John Lewis’s glowing picture of foster care – dedicated “dad,” excited “mum,” nice house, big Christmas tree – is false and misleading. The reality is that thousands of children are wrenched from loving mothers because of poverty and/or domestic violence from which they got no protection, and put through a “care system” where they are shunted from placement to placement, abused and neglected by private companies that make millions from their misery.
That this is happening to over 100,000 children is a most cruel and obscene abuse of power by the state. If John Lewis actually cared about children, they would join mothers’ call to end forced separations that traumatise children for life, leading to suicide and criminalisation. It is despicable for John Lewis to be promoting the privatised fostering and adoption industry gravy train.”
The foster care sector has been criticised heavily in past years for vast profits it has made, much of which has not been used to make the lives of fostered children better. The sector was valued at £1.7 billion in 2018, as more foster care companies backed by large private equity funds made their way into the system. That spike in financial interest has been met with another unexplained rise in the number of children taken into care. Google children in care and documentaries, and a raft of programmes produced by news outlets such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, all reveal deeply concerning practices inside the care sector, which prioritise profits over young people.
That the ad aired during a cost of living crisis, featuring a form of care which is well-paid in relative terms, is at best unfortunate. At worst, it enters dangerous ethical territory which promotes a service that is not fit for purpose.
To their credit, John Lewis does not mention in any front-facing material on their website, or the ad, that fostering is a paid gig, nor do the links from Action For Children direct you immediately to the packages on offer. That they also featured Ellie, who sits in an age group which is typically hard to find placements for (and we reference only children who genuinely need to be placed here), is also a positive choice.
While there has been some speculation about whether the advert is focused on fostering or adoption in the media, the reality is that it does’t matter. Children in foster care can sometimes find themselves being adopted later on. But while foster carers receive money to take care of a child, adopters — who are seen as having sole responsibility for the child in law — don’t get a penny. That is also problematic for John Lewis, in a world where families in need of cash could also look to fostering, for all the wrong reasons.
Researching Reform received additional comments for the piece, and so we have added them in the gallery below. If you would like to add your feedback about the ad – good or bad – we will continue to update the gallery.
We are very grateful to all those children, families and experts who were so generous with their thoughts and time.
We would also like to thank Louise over at John Lewis for organising a response from the company. We have asked John Lewis some additional questions which we are still waiting for a response to. The questions were:
- You mention in your statement that the vast majority of comments you’ve received have been positive – can you quantify that or offer any stats for this statement?
- I’m aware that people have sent in complaints to John Lewis – could you tell me how many complaints you have received so far?
- Is John Lewis encouraging viewers to consider foster care?