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Grandparents support is vital in separations

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How many grandparents are spending this summer looking after grandchildren? At a time when many people look forward to relaxing in the sunshine, for some older people the school holidays mean a significant chunk of their time taken up by childcare duties. How many times can they go up and down the slide, and how many times can they really want to eat ice-cream? Grandchildren are dearly loved, of course, but it’s always nice to take them home at the end of the day! 

The demands of modern life mean grandparents increasingly being called upon to help with the children and so spending much more time with them. In many cases, children today have stronger, closer relationships with their grandparents than previous generations.

So, what happens when the parents decide to separate? Many grandparents feel they are in ‘no-man’s land’ when they become excluded from their grandchildren’s lives - legally speaking, they are. 

I will say this quietly – grandparents have no legal rights in relation to grandchildren, even though they may have played a huge part in their lives. 

According to the Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, as many as seven grandparents per-day applied for Child Arrangements Orders between 2013-2014. Most simply wanted the right to see their grandchildren after the parents had separated. Up until the introduction of the Children Act 1989, grandparents had no legal process available to them, and even under the current act grandparents do not have any pre-existing legal rights. Neither is the process particularly straightforward. Grandparents have to ask permission to apply for an order ahead of making an application. 

However, once this process is complete, applicants are likely to get permission if they have been, for want of a better description, ‘normal’ grandparents. It is not a substantial hurdle. The legal test looks at, amongst other things, the applicants’ connection with the children and any risk that there might be of disrupting the children’s lives to such an extent that they might be harmed by it. 

In spite of this, there are still a high proportion of grandparents who, sadly, do lose contact with their grandchildren. Much of this can be put down to a lack of awareness of the legal options open to them.

Many grandparents find themselves in a vulnerable position and understandably upset by what is happening within their family.  It can be tempting to take sides in a separation and support their own child if things are becoming difficult for them - it’s only natural. But this is probably one of the worst things a grandparent can do. This will get in the way of the relationship with the grandchildren as taking sides will inevitably upset the other parent and undermine the trust there once was. It is a very fine line for any grandparent to walk, but the best advice is to try and remain neutral which will encourage the best ongoing arrangements for the children. Just because a couple are separating does not mean that extended family should be excluded from the children’s lives, particularly if they can prevent themselves becoming embroiled in the parents’ personal issues.   

Alongside the practical support grandparents can to give separated parents, having continued contact with their extended family can be hugely important to the grandchildren, particularly at a time of significant change. Grandparents can offer great emotional support and have an important role to play in guiding the child through a difficult time. It’s important that grandparents appear to be neutral and measured when speaking to their grandchildren about the separation. Don’t undermine or talk negatively about the parents. No child wants to hear arguments or nasty things said about the people they love the most.

For some grandparents, their role becomes more significantly than seeing their grandchildren regularly.  Some become full-time ‘stand-in’ parents. There may have been tragedy or loss within the family. In some cases, parents have become unable to care for their children.

Under these circumstances, it is important that grandparents have all the support available to make sure that the home is as secure, happy and stress-free as it can be. Grandparents need legal rights to make decisions about the children in their care and they can get those by applying for court orders. Many in these situations have Child Arrangements or Special Guardianship Orders to reflect their role and give them legal responsibilities. Some grandparents have support from social services. Whatever the measures, it is equally important that there is additional help with the family finances. With an order in place, grandparents can be paid benefits such as Child Benefit and Tax Credits if eligible and in many cases with a Special Guardianship Order they will receive an allowance from the local authority. 

Every little helps and if any grandparents are caring for grandchildren, full time, without any legal rights or financial support – seek some advice.

There continues to be an ongoing debate about grandparents and the hugely important role played by them in family life.  In Canada their importance is upheld by a Code stating that neither parent “without grave reason” may interfere with the relationship between a child and a grandparent. The UK isn’t quite at that stage, but grandparents are increasingly being recognised as playing an important role in the family.

Printed in Wigan Observer - August 2015