Grandparents are left out of the family picture too often
When parents separate, grandparents can find themselves cut off from grandchildren with no rights. The law should change Joan Bakewell
Stage lights sway beside the tall trees in Regents Park theatre on Saturday night, casting a golden glow on Beatrice and her reluctant wooer, Benedick. It was shivering cold, but our hearts were warm, first because of the play, but also because I was there in the company of my grandson. Much Ado had been a set text at school so he got the plot and understood the rude jokes as much as I did. The following morning we were off again, just the two of us, grandma and grandson, heading for the British Library and its exhibition of Henry VIII. Yes, my grandson is already in his teens and enjoys these one-to-one weekends almost as much as I do.
Jimmy and Margaret Deuchars in Glasgow had a fine time with their granddaughters at half-term, too. The two teenagers stayed over in their home and went on outings to Loch Lomond and such, just the sort of treats grandparents enjoy sharing. But in Jimmy and Margaret’s case it hasn’t always been that easy.
The Deuchars lost their daughter to breast cancer only weeks after her second baby was born. Her husband soon married again and moved away to Liverpool. His new family took precedence in his life and the grandparents found contact hard. Their requests to keep in touch came to nothing. They realised that they had lost more than their daughter. But they weren’t willing to accept the situation, and went to court. The laws of this country do not acknowledge any legal relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. However, after a somewhat heated negotiation, the families came to an agreement. In the years that followed they would meet their granddaughters once a month at Carlisle Castle or the Tesco near by. It wasn’t much of a family life, but it would have to do. However, they didn’t stop there.
When I was first a grandparent, about 17 years ago, grandparents didn’t have much of a profile. They were simply bundled in with the general family background and not expected to have much of a role. All that has changed, and people such as Miriam Stoppard are writing delicious books about the joys and rewards, but also about the skills and pitfalls of what I suppose must be called “grand parenting”. Being a grandparent, it seems to me, can be gloriously free of rule books and restrictions. There is only one qualification — parentage — and after that you make it up as you go along.
These days, grandparents are altogether more important in the community of families, a consequence, no doubt, of the fact there are more and more of us — 14 million at last count. The sad thing is that as many as a million of us have lost touch as a result of our children’s divorce or separation. Paternal grandparents are usually the most deprived because women — mothers — are awarded custody of their children in 90 per cent of divorce cases. So the fathers’ parents lose out. A report by the Grandparents Association of an admittedly small sample found that while 55 per cent of grandparents were directly involved in their grandchildren’s care before the separation, 67 per cent found themselves excluded from care afterwards and 42 per cent lost all face-to-face contact.
This is a regrettable situation. But the law — currently the Children Act 1989 — is framed to put the interests of the child foremost. So let’s consider the child’s needs: first the worst-case scenario, there are desperate families where drugs and drink are wrecking the lives of young children. I know of situations where the intervention of a grandparent offers exactly the support that young children need. Less dramatically, 20 per cent of children are growing up in a one-parent family: again the presence of older role models broadens their social horizons.
More positively still, research last year by the University of Oxford in collaboration with the Institute of Education found that “involved grandparents” had a major impact on adolescent wellbeing. The research’s principal investigator, Professor Ann Buchanan, said: “What was especially interesting was the links we found between ‘involved grandparents’ and adolescent wellbeing. Closeness was not enough: only grandparents who got stuck in and did things with their grandchildren had this positive impact on them.”
This is where Jimmy Deuchars comes in again. So distressed were he and Margaret over the struggle to gain access to their granddaughters that they founded Grandparents Apart UK, a support group to help others in the same plight. That was five years ago.
They have seen great improvements. The group consulted with the Scottish Executive to shape a Charter for Grandchildren, which was introduced in Scotland in May 2006.
This says that “on occasions professional organisations such as social work departments or the courts . . . may have to make decisions that will have a lasting impact throughout a child’s life. In these circumstances it is vital in touch with her young grandchildren. She is being refused the easy and regular access she would like. She has written to her MP, Andrew Dismore, of Lab Hendon, who referred it for a reply to Baroness of Dreflin Morgan, the minister responsible for this policy area.
Speaking of Scotland’s Charter for Grandchildren, Lady Morgan wrote: “Although we have no plans to produce a similar document in England, I think it is fair to say that the principles of the charter are already well established through case law, government policy and the Children Act 1989 itself.”
That isn’t enough. A report this week from the Grandparents Association, the Family Matters Institute and Families Need Fathers demonstrates that grandparents have scarcely more rights over their grandchildren than complete strangers. They certainly have fewer than step-parents who, if they have lived with a child for more than three years, have an automatic right of access.
Grandparents who are determined to reach their grandchildren must be prepared to embark on lengthy and sometimes expensive legal proceedings. Given that grandparents are likely to be getting on in years, this isn’t an appropriate action. The law needs to be changed to provide for grandparent access as a right. Nothing less will do.