The hidden battle of grandparent carers | Helen Collett

The growing number of UK grandparents who, like me, care full-time for children need more support from social services

There are many reasons why grandparents might be raising their grandchildren: a relationship breakdown between the child's parents, illness, addiction or violence. Whatever the reason, it is believed that around 200,000 grandparents in the UK are providing full-time care for their grandchildren.

My story started back in 2001. I'd worked hard raising my own children and was starting to look forward to and plan for retirement. Then, our family life took a turn for the worse. My son John's relationship with his children's mother broke down, and he came to live with us. His two children, Michael (who was seven years old) and Amy (14 months) soon followed, as social services became involved and placed the children with us. They said it would be temporary.

But more challenges lay ahead. John delivered the news that every parent dreads: he had become involved in taking drugs. I couldn't understand it, he clearly loved his children. I was angry that he'd got himself onto a slippery slope and was threatening their wellbeing. He used to say that the drugs helped him cope by blocking things out.

Five years later, the children were still with us. In those five years, we had two young children to raise, plus the strains of supporting John in his battle with drug addiction, attending numerous clinics and hospital appointments. It wasn't easy, and I felt unsupported by social services. I remember vividly asking them if my husband and I could take a few days' respite; we were in desperate need of a few days away. The response came swiftly: "You should be grateful that the children go to school – what more do you want?"

My battle with social services was a lengthy and draining one. Having raised the children for five years, we wanted to apply to be carers. As the children's guardians, we would then be entitled to some proper support. After seeking legal advice, we found out that we should have been assessed and been CRB-checked by social services after 12 weeks of the children living with us. Five years on, we hadn't even been made aware of this. We eventually went through the lengthy procedure, only to be rejected: we were not approved as official carers of the children we had been raising for over five years. I felt insulted and demoralised, but I wasn't going to give up easily.

As this bitter blow was being dealt, my son tragically lost his fight against drug addiction. Yet in all our interactions with social services, there was little compassion towards ourselves or our grandchildren. We were expected to "get on with it", despite all the emotional heartache bereavement brings.

I took out a total of 10 complaints against the local social services department, ranging from them saying that no support would be available for my grandson Michael, who has special needs and speech and hearing impairments, to the promise of a few days' respite that was never granted. But worst of all, they also denied my grandchildren the right to be in contact with their other siblings. I was awarded nine out of the 10 complaints.

So what has this experience taught me? It surely isn't right that the thousands of grandparents out there who are raising their grandchildren are overlooked, unsupported and in many ways taken for granted by local services. I'm not asking to be rewarded for bringing them up, because I wouldn't change it for the world. I just want recognition, fair treatment and compassion by social services, as well as better support in place for people in similar situations to my own, in particular for those raising a disabled child, which means huge additional costs and pressures.

It's not easy bringing up children at the best of times, but even more so when you're not getting any younger and you've got your own health issues to worry about. It is unrealistic to think grandparents can support care costs on a pension. We were dealt a lifeline by the Family Fund who gave us grants to buy a fridge, washing machine, bedding and a laptop for Michael. The support of the local school, college and Connexions has also been invaluable.

Grandparent carers need to be made aware of what support is open to them and the criteria they need to meet to receive carer's allowance, disability allowance and housing benefits. There is still much to be done to fight for this hidden group to get the same rights as parents if they are bringing up children as their own. But ultimately, I will continue to care for my grandchildren, with or without support. After all, someone has to pick up the pieces "just like grandma".


Helen Collett

The GuardianTramp

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