Keeping it in the family

Grandparents who look after their
grandchildren do not receive the support that other carers are
given, despite the vital and welcome role they are taking on. Ruth
Winchester reports on research highlighting this inequity.

Imagine the scenario. Your three children are
all under five, one has learning difficulties. They all need beds,
food, clothes, school uniforms, shoes, transport and so on, but you
and your partner are both disabled and unable to work.

When you approach your local social services
department for help, they tell you that you must manage somehow,
and that no extra money or help will be forthcoming. They assure
you that you are not entitled to benefits. Instead, they suggest
that you could remortgage or sell your house, give up your car, or
borrow from friends and family.

This may seem an unlikely situation in
Britain, with its benefit net designed to protect the most
vulnerable, and family support services for parents who are
struggling to bring up children. But for the hundreds of
grandparents who become primary carers of their grandchildren each
year, no such net exists.

The Family Rights Group this week publishes
the results of one of the first large-scale studies into the
experiences of people in this situation – estimated to be
approximately 1 per cent of all grandparents.

The report,1 which was funded by
the family policy unit at the Home Office, looked at the
experiences of 180 grandparents from a variety of ethnic
backgrounds. They fell into two broad groups – those who had never
planned to take on their children’s children, and those who
expected to take on caring responsibilities as part of their role
as grandparents.

About a quarter of grandparents were caring
for grandchildren to enable parents to work or study. The remaining
three-quarters (137) were caring after some form of family crisis;
just over 20 per cent were caring because the parents were unable
to; 19 per cent because parents had deserted their children; 14 per
cent as a result of family breakdown; 11 per cent due to a parental
illness; and 10 per cent from parental death.

The report makes uncomfortable reading,
particularly in an era when the benefits of placing children with
family members rather than with unrelated carers are starting to be
widely accepted.

Grandparent carers seem to have a pretty tough
time of things. The report found that they frequently felt they had
no choice but to take on their grandchildren – often because the
only alternative was for them to be taken into care and placed with
foster carers or adopted. A common criticism was that there had
been very little information, advice or support offered at the
initial stage in the immediate aftermath of a family crisis. The
upshot was that people who took on caring for their grandchildren
were not prepared for the long-term costs, difficulties and
implications of the decision.

One of the biggest problems faced by
grandparents was money. Most of those surveyed were approaching
retirement or already living on a pension. There is no social
security benefit designed to help relatives take care of children.
And in many cases the absent parent had not passed on the child
benefit book, leaving grandparents unable to claim even that.

Many grandparents said they were shocked by
how little there was to help them pay for the children’s needs.
Currently, grandparents can get support from social services if the
child is placed under a residence order, but on a discretionary
basis only, which is deducted from any means-tested benefits.
Otherwise, they may be able to get financial help under section 17
of the Children Act 1989, which isn’t counted against benefit. Some
grandparents are approved as foster carers under care orders or
voluntary agreements, although the report found that they are
generally not given the same financial or practical support as
“non-relative” foster carers. There was little consistency in the
availability of payments – some grandparents believed that social
workers did not tell them about what they might be entitled to
because it would come out of an already over-stretched budget. As
one grandparent puts it succinctly: “They set me up with a
residence order and then dropped me like a hot potato.”

As a result, many carers were substantially
worse off. Many were struggling to cope on small pensions, some had
remortgaged their homes to release capital, with some taking on
financial commitments that would continue to well into their 70s
and 80s. Most had used up their savings and many were living
hand-to-mouth with no cash for essentials such as clothes, let
alone luxuries.

There was a sense of bitterness among many of
the grandparents that their contribution was neither recognised nor
valued. Many had spent decades paying tax and working towards a
comfortable retirement, yet when they found themselves unexpectedly
bringing up young children again, there was virtually no assistance
available to ease the burden. As one says: “I feel bitter at the
shabby way social services treat someone in my position. People
looking after elderly relatives get a lot of practical and
financial help, but little is done for people in the opposite
position.” Many grandparents also feel that their situation means
they and their grandchildren are severely – and unnecessarily –

There was also a sense of outrage at the money
spent on other parts of the service when so little was forthcoming
for grandparents in dire financial straits. The report quotes one
grandparent who says: “While we were left to cope alone, there
seemed to be a bottomless pit of money to help her parents off
drugs when neither of them wanted to stop using.”

Grandparents also resent the perversity of a
system that neglects those who can arguably provide the best life
chances for a child in favour of unrelated carers. As another
grandparent says: “Social services offered me £26 per week to
care for M. I couldn’t afford this, so they placed her with foster
carers and paid them £150 a week.”

To add insult to injury, grandparents often
faced emotional and financial hardship, as a direct result of the
legal process which gave them responsibility for their
grandchildren. Giving evidence in court against the parents of your
grandchildren often jeopardised any kind of functional ongoing
relationship. And in court cases parents often had access to legal
aid and could make repeated legal challenges, which many
grandparents had to pay thousands of pounds to defend.

“What is so difficult,” one grandparent
suggests, “is that whenever you speak to social workers they’re
looking at it from the parents’ point of view…they seem to be
more interested in looking after the parent than the child.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, most grandparents
say their relationship with their own son or daughter had become
worse since they had taken responsibility for caring for their
grandchildren. Thirteen per cent of respondents had no contact with
the parents of their grandchildren, although nearly half still had
contact with both parents.

Grandparents also say they feel socially
isolated in a way that they had never felt as parents. Attempts by
some to access mainstream parent-support schemes such as mother and
toddler groups were often frustrated, and some grandparents with
mixed-race grandchildren say they have been the target of racial

Unsurprisingly for carers who are in their
60s, 70s and 80s, another major area of concern was their own
health. While health problems undoubtedly affected their ability to
care, grandparents were also concerned about what would happen to
the children they were caring for if they were to become ill or
die. Residence orders do not allow grandparents to specify a legal
guardian in the event of their death, and many were anxious that
the children would not be properly looked after.

Alison Richards is the report’s author and a
legal adviser at the Family Rights Group. “For me, the really big
issue is financial,” she argues. “In not supporting grandparents we
are ensuring that many of these children are growing up in poverty.
And the irony is that it is not necessarily huge amounts of money –
lots of grandparents just need small amounts of money for things
such as school uniforms and shoes.

“What a lot of grandparents feel is
bewilderment,” Richards adds. “They can see a lot of money being
spent on things such as drug rehab for parents and can’t understand
why they are in the position they are. Also they feel like they
have given a lot, they have paid their taxes, and then are just
dropped to cope alone.”

1 Family Rights Group,
Second Time Around, from 020 7923 2628.

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