Why Affordable Playgroups Matter – A story about the 2012 Somerset floods.

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 We have all been talking a lot about level 2, 3 and 4 interventions of the kind that were provided to parents by GETSET. In all of this, it’s easy to forget the value of just having a friendly, affordable, well equipped playgroup available.  

I want to share my experience as a new mum in Somerset during the floods of 2012. How isolating my situation was, and what a lifeline the stay and play groups at the children’s centre were for me. 

I moved from BANES to Somerset when my little boy was only a few months old. I am a traveller and we were living in a caravan on a green lane in the middle of nowhere. This isn’t something I speak of lightly in public. I have come to expect harassment for the crime of living in a caravan.  I ask people to place their opinions about the travelling community to one side for a minute. 

I had my little boy by cesarean section and had a difficult recovery. I was already diagnosed with PTSD after losing my first baby to medical negligence. I also have a physical disability.  There was one other mum and child living on the site with us but she moved off to somewhere closer to civilisation, meaning that when my husband was off working long days it was just me and my baby boy, and the dogs, for hours and hours every day. Somerset at the time was suffering extreme rainfall. My little boy never saw a sunny day for the whole first year of his life. It started the day he was born and it did not stop.  When you live in a caravan in a sea of mud that is seriously limiting.  The road to the site flooded and was only accessible by 4×4. We couldn’t move off if we wanted to. 

I was isolated, terribly bored, in pain and becoming increasingly stressed. Everything we owned was getting ruined by the mud. We couldn’t keep our clothes nice and our buggy was always muddy. This had been a nice place to live, if a little isolated, until the rain started. Now it was a nightmare.  

I joined some baby yoga and swimming classes even though they were 10 miles away. They cost a small fortune, plus fuel, and I had to bear the funny looks from the other mums. If I told them I lived in a caravan than that, combined with the mud, meant I’d generally never be spoken to again. I felt I had to hide my way of life from the other mums. I would tell half-truths, that our “place” was flooded and that’s why I was so dirty. I was embarrassed that they thought I was scruffy. We weren’t starving but I couldn’t afford those designer pushchairs or the smart, understated, Boden-catalogue clothes. The local mums were a real “yummy mummy” crowd and we simply had no shared experience. You can be more alone in a room full of people than on your own sometimes. 

When my son was nearly 1, the site became so flooded we were forced to move, dragging our caravans through the flood and bumping them along the washed-away road. We were offered a pitch on a private yard on the quiet. There was no planning permission or tenant protection. When we got there, we discovered the landlord had not installed the water supply, electricity or toilet. He still wanted £100 a week but we had nowhere else to go due to the flooding. The yard was isolated and I spent most of my time going back and forth to the launderette 10 miles away. It was miserable. My physical disability began to deteriorate and I was in agony but there was no help available to me. The yard owner had said he wanted families living there, but they never materialised. He was still using it as a scrap yard and it was not safe for my little boy to play outside.  

It was about this time that I discovered the children’s centre. I can’t remember how I found out about it. Maybe I saw a poster or something online. We attended our first messy play session and it was a revelation. It was clean and dry. There was space to run around indoors and out. There were all the toys and sensory activities we didn’t have room for at home. The staff were kind and full of good advice. The mums were just…..normal. Some of them were struggling too, none of them were picture-perfect, and we could open up about the problems we were having without being judged.  All this, and it only cost a pound. Amazing! 

We became regulars. We left the yard where we were staying soon enough as Somerset slowly dried out. Went back out on the road because it was better than where we were living.  My first port of call in our new location was the children’s centre. In time we were able to buy a piece of land near Glastonbury and settle there in order for my little boy to go to school. The children’s centre has been a constant in my children’s lives.

Extreme weather came again in 2014, but this time, we had somewhere safe and warm to play. My physical disability worsened, my child began to show signs of autism, we went through hell with planning permission, and through it all I had a support network of parents and staff.  Me and my children have made friends for life at the Children’s centre.

When the cuts began, we braced for the worst. Groups went down to one a week, the old centre was sold off and replaced with a new facility in the library. We were all pleasantly surprised to see how lovely the new centre was. Now barely a year later we are told it will close. It will all go. We tried to fight it, but the decision was made so quickly we were swept aside by Somerset County Council.  

They’re not just closing a playgroup.  They are breaking up a group of kids who have grown up together, and depriving future children and parents of having that community of support. Now if parents want to meet up somewhere indoors and play with their children the options are limited to expensive cafés or driving to Wells or Somerton for expensive soft play. There are a couple of privately-run playgroups locally but they cost £5-7 per child. Some of the GETSET parents have 4 children and are on the breadline. As I’m writing this the rain is lashing my home. A few days ago, in Street, the old Crispin shopping centre was flooded. Where will those children play if we have another year of rain? 

New mums and babies turn up to stay and play almost every week.  I can only imagine how lonely and isolated they will be without a children’s centre. There was nothing like the stay and play. It was affordable even if you were skint. If you didn’t have £1 nobody said anything. It was friendly. You had parents from all social classes and all walks of life. It didn’t come with a side helping of religion and it was always completely non-judgemental. 

It’s not just the end of the children’s centre. It’s the end of an era.  The council say a fund is being provided to set up volunteer groups, but this isn’t possible. The Glastonbury stay and play catered to hundreds of families, including many of the neediest and most troubled in our community. For a replacement to run safely there must be trained and paid staff. These children cannot be effectively safeguarded by well-meaning ladies in a church hall somewhere. They need a proper support network and children’s services oversight. 

If anyone from Somerset C.C. is reading this. It’s not too late to reconsider. 

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Baby “S”

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This is baby “S”. He is a cute, chubby little chap with blue eyes and a crop of reddish hair. His mum, Kerry, had a normal pregnancy, but things at home weren’t quite right. S’s mum needed help. Unfortunately, she lives in Somerset. Baby S is born in 2019. The local children’s centre has closed. There are only 2 health visitors for all of Somerset.  

S arrives late at night on an understaffed maternity ward. His mum needs sleep and support but the staff are all too busy.  She wants to breastfeed but she can’t seem to get the knack. She needs to go to the toilet but nobody will hold the baby. She has to leave him to scream. He wakes up all the other babies. After a couple of sleepless nights, they are allowed to go home. Kerry already feel exhausted, frazzled and unsupported. 

S was not planned. His parent’s relationship was quite new and they are young. His mum worries about her partner’s drinking and his temper.  The baby is fussy, he doesn’t sleep, but his dad, Tony, is immature and does not help out. Neither parent feels like they know what they are doing. Kerry looks online for a breastfeeding support group in her small town, but finds out It closed last year with the children’s centre. Maybe the health visitor will help, but their phone rings off the hook. There are only two staff for all the babies in Somerset. She leaves a message but never hears back. Kerry gives up and buys some expensive formula. 

Kerry feels isolated. All her friends are out having fun. She needs company. She looks online for mother and baby groups. There isn’t one in her town, since the children’s centre closed. Kerry does not drive but she gets on the bus to get to a privately-run group in a wealthy nearby village. After an hour waiting for and riding the bus Kerry walks nervously into the room. A group of perfect blonde hairdo’s turn to look at her. She pays £5 to the group leader. The blonde ladies eye Kerry’s tracksuit with suspicion. They make a weak gesture of welcome then turn back to each other and go back to discussing the home help, and their next holiday. Kerry can’t relate. She drinks her tea in silence, plays with S, then another hour home on the bus. 

She tries a Church playgroup but again, feels out of place. She has never been a religious person. She is uncomfortable with the religious music playing and the bible stories.  Another parent asks if she has had her little boy christened. Kerry feels embarrassed like she should not really be here. Again, she can’t relate. 

Kerry becomes depressed. She still hasn’t seen the health visitor. The house is a mess. She isn’t coping. Tony pushed her while she was holding the baby. She can’t stop him crying and it winds Tony up. She is afraid of Tony and worries he will hurt her or S if she tries to leave. She has barely spoken to another adult in weeks. She is ashamed to speak to other parents about her problems, they seem to have their lives together.  She feels scruffy and stupid next to them. She needs everyday advice on how to look after her baby, but she grew up in care and does not have family to rely on. She was the first of her friends to have a baby. Kerry feels incompetent and lost. Money is tight and there is nowhere to go with the baby that does not cost money. The weather is bad and he is too little for a playground. There is nothing to do for hours and hours every day. She begins to think that S would be better off without her. She imagines herself doing harm to him. 

Nobody knows about Kerry. Nobody directs her to the “online portal” that replaced the GETSET service. No other mums notice her struggling. Nobody offers advice. 

Maybe it is a hazard in the messy house that does it; bleach left out, heavy cupboard not secured to the wall and S tries to climb it. Maybe Kerry falls asleep on the sofa with S, not knowing he could suffocate, lacking that practical advice that was prominently displayed at the children’s centre and that parents share with one another. Maybe she leaves a nappy bag where S can reach it and he suffocates. Maybe Tony comes in drunk and violent, he’s taken cocaine, he loses the plot and flies at Kerry and the baby. Maybe Kerry’s postnatal depression becomes a more severe puerpural psychosis and she attempts to kill both herself and S. Maybe S develops symptoms of a serious illness but Kerry does not know the signs until it is too late as she lacks crucial information about sepsis and meningitis. Maybe he chokes and Kerry does not know how to perform infant CPR. Maybe Tony loses his rag when S won’t settle for the 20th night in a row and shakes him. 

Whatever the cause of death, one thing is for sure. Without the vital support provided to parents by its children’s services, Somerset is sure to have its own “Baby P” sooner or later. 

Kerry is not a real person but some of her experiences are based on my own and that of my friends in Somerset. 

 

 

Somerset cannot afford to lose GETSET

Welcome to this blog. We are a group of parents who use the GETSET centre. Some of us use the universal service, others have needed higher level help. The GETSET centre has been a service which we rely on and it cannot be replaced by an online portal. We have created this blog as part of our campaign to highlight the dangerous shortsightedness of the decision of Somerset county council to effectively kill the service.

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