I have advocated for the rights of the most vulnerable children and families for over three decades but to my shame, was not aware of the heart wrenching and often tragic circumstances and challenges faced by both grandparents and grandchildren, because of their enforced separations. I had no idea of the extent of pain on both sides, until it affected me, and it was this experience that brought me closer to those adversely affected by the issue.
I made the decision at the age of 16 to stand up and say no to a forced marriage and subsequently I continue to be disowned by my family. Therefore, I can share with empathy and conviction, the pain of rejection and abandonment, and the impact on a young person that often leads to lifelong trauma. No child should ever be robbed of a loving family. These issues impact on a child’s right to have safe, positive family relationships with those that can provide safety, security and help teach so much, including family history, thereby providing a window into the legacy of the family.
This journey has led to hearing about the tragic suicides of grandparents who struggled to live with the loss of their grandchildren. This experience is often described as a “living bereavement” as the pain is at times so unbearable that it impacts on the health and well-being of those living with this loss. I have engaged with grandparents who have been arrested and told to accept police cautions for sending gifts and cards to their absent grandchildren. It is important to understand that we are talking about grandparents and grandchildren who have had safe and established loving relationships snatched from their lives.
This is the background to us deciding to initiate research and formalise the issues in The Grandparents United for Children report, which has just been launched.
A significant finding of the report is that where there are no safeguarding issues, grandparents within a court process generally have gaps of over a year or more before any contact with their grandchildren.
The report makes 12 recommendations that have been informed by extensive research and dialogues with both grandparents and grandchildren. Woven throughout the report are the real-life experiences of grandparents with lived experiences of being denied contact with their grandchildren. The report provides several case studies, one of which I would like to share as I found myself supporting this 87-year-old grandmother the day prior to the submission of this article. She openly shared her grief and suicidal thoughts as she found herself losing her battle in court to see her grandchildren.
Her grief was palpable as she shared the many happy years with her grandchildren and how a disagreement led her daughter to removing them. The gap between seeing her grandchildren grew from months to years, severing the connection – which she felt impacted the Cafcass report. She shared how the absence of so many years would have impacted on the children sharing how they truly felt. She lived in hope that her daughter would make amends, however, this never happened so during the absence she would send cards and gifts, only to be called to a police station due to being reported for harassment and told to accept a caution. I felt totally helpless listening, as she shared how during her lifetime, she will never see her grandchildren again, but has been informed that she will be sent photos of the grandchildren on an annual basis. The fact is children in this space often feel a loyalty to parents and are stuck in the middle. Grandparents in this situation have no idea of what has been shared over the years regarding their absence and will now live with thinking the children may feel abandoned by them. In the case of the grandmother above, this is so far from the truth as I listen and watch how she has done her best for them to know she not only exists, but she fought hard to be in their lives.
In December 2021 we initiated a Change.org petition to support these grandparents, to protect the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. Thousands not only signed the petition but shared their harrowing and heart-breaking experiences, in significant numbers. Those signing included adults who had experienced lost relationships with grandparents as children, grandparents, and family members and friends supporting those affected. This led us to immediately establish an email address, so that volunteers could respond to the ongoing need for emotional support and, where necessary, offer legal guidance.
At the time of writing this article over 38,000 people have signed this petition calling upon the Prime Minister and Justice Minister to amend the Children Act 1989 in relation to the position of grandparents who are not recognised in legislation. Furthermore, there remains an urgent need to improve judicial responses, as they vary significantly across the judiciary. This is not a new story or even a new campaign, as many have been campaigning for change for decades, and have been promised many things from successive governments, only to be consistently let down.
The last resort for many grandparents is legal redress, and our research demonstrates how most grandparents struggle to understand the legal system. The playing field is not equal as many who cannot afford legal expenses face significant challenges when acting as a litigant in person. If grandparents are successful in obtaining a child arrangement order and the resident parent decides to blatantly disregard that order, they are back at square one. Our research identified several grandparents on their fourth or fifth enforcement order, as little action was taken to enforce them, leading to greater harm to the children as they experience longer absences.
The recommendations in the report have been directly informed by those affected, including grandchildren, and further informed by independent research. For the first time we can present a statistically reliable estimate of the extent of grandparental alienation in the UK. Research commissioned for this report from Savanta suggests that two million grandparents are affected. However, the extent of children affected is likely to be higher, and this finding is indicative of a major social and welfare problem that must not be ignored.
I fundamentally believe that we are dealing with the tip of the iceberg and scratching the surface on the issue of grandparental alienation, and it now requires a concerted effort from across government and society for us to change this landscape.
- The Ministry of Justice statistics demonstrate 2,000 grandparents applied for child arrangement orders in 2016, that was up from 1,600 in 2014.
- The Ministry of Justice should now provide updated numbers, including repeated breaches of enforcement orders. This is an area that requires immediate improvement so that children do not experience gaps in contact.
- There are currently 200,000 kinship carers in the UK, with at least half of them being grandparents and yet this significant relationship is not recognised in the Children Act 1989. Approximately 14 million grandparents across the UK are saving the economy an estimated £7bn a year on childcare.
- In Ireland grandparents can get a right to access separately from the parents and this is dependent on the judge. If parents or guardians refuse to comply with an access or custody order, they can be fined up to €2,500, go to prison for up to 12 months, or both (tinyurl.com/22vt6nz7).
Independent Savanta ComRes Survey
In support of research, the law firm Lloyd Platt & Co commissioned and funded an independent survey to collate information and evidence to assist this report in March 2022.
This survey consisted of a random sample of 1,082 grandparents from across the UK. This is the first in-depth survey that examines a wide range of factors experienced by grandparents and their awareness of the issues across the UK.
- 15% of grandparents completing the poll had been prevented from seeing their grandchildren.
- Two thirds of grandparents who are not being prevented from seeing their grandchildren are aware of this issue, and a quarter of grandparents know someone who has been in that situation.
- Grandparents aged 30-49 were more likely to be prevented from seeing their grandchildren.
- A personal disagreement or argument is the main reason why a third of grandparents have been prevented from contact.
- The main person preventing contact has been identified as either a son’s wife or partner.
- Half of grandparents polled have been in touch with grandchildren for more than a year before contact was stopped and almost 50% have been prevented from contact for over a year.
- Despite being denied contact nearly 8 in 10 grandparents tried to maintain contact by letters, sending gifts or trying to talk. Of those penalised, 20% had police intervention, a police caution or threat of prosecution, including police visits; 15% received a solicitor’s letter threatening proceedings; and 11% had court proceedings taken against them.
The most common action that grandparents felt the UK government should take, is to allow grandchildren to continue contact with grandparents during court proceedings where it has been evidenced there are no issues of safety to children.
Some 250,000 grandparents have never been allowed to see their grandchildren. Over 150,000 grandparents have been warned by the police to stop trying to contact their grandchildren. This report heard from grandparents who had sent birthday cards to their absent grandchildren and then been contacted by the police after claims of harassment.
The recommendations provide a real opportunity to bring about change and achieve improvements in the interest of children and to ensure a fairer system to support litigants in person who face profound disadvantages. There is a need to have a fairer and more equitable system whereby those with parental responsibility cannot simply unilaterally remove safe and loving contact with grandchildren.
There remains a need for decisive government action and for past promises to be revisited, and this includes the Prime Minister, opposition parties and government departments. This has also included the Ministry of Justice, which in 2018 publicly stated consideration of a change in law to establish a “presumption” that grandparents can see their grandchildren after parents separate. At that time, MPs from all parties provided their support in backing an amendment to the Children Act 1989 to enshrine in law the child’s right to have a relationship with their grandparents and other close members of the extended family.
The report also highlights the need for improvement across the judiciary, Cafcass and the Children’s Commissioner, as key responsible bodies that can change this landscape in the best interest of children.
This campaign is about the rights of children, ensuring their right to continue having safe, established contact with significant members of their family, namely grandparents, and to protect children from adverse childhood experiences.
I wish to end by asking those of you that have loving relationships with grandchildren, to close your eyes and imagine the following scenario. One day, this contact just ceases, you contact your son or daughter and they choose to ignore you and then they change their phone numbers, and you desperately seek answers only to have the door closed at every opportunity. You worry for the children and ask others in the family to get involved, to find out why and what is going on. All your attempts fail and then you accept that the relationship with your child is fractured but beg to be allowed to see your grandchild/ren. This also fails and time passes, including birthdays and all you have are memories and your fears that you will be forgotten and, worse, your grandchild may think you did not care. Imagine this so as to be able walk in their shoes and own how it feels for both grandparents and children who are being robbed of time and legacy.
I absolutely understand how many grandparents do not chose the legal process as it is an incredibly stressful and brave step to take out action against your own child. This leads to waiting and hoping things will change or that the grandchild will find you when they are older, and this is a choice. However, in my case, I chose the legal process as I have lived with feeling abandoned and did not wish my grandson to ever feel this. Even if I was not able to have contact, I needed him to know in his future that grandma tried because I have lived with the effects of being abandoned by family. I applied to the courts in 2021 and after a gap of almost 16 months I was granted supervised contact and my key fear was that he would not recognise me due to the gap. I had a judge whose focus was the best interest of the child and followed the evidence and not the unsubstantiated character assassinations. I was awarded a Child Arrangement Order this year and I am deeply thankful to the legal system as this unsupervised contact once a month is a gift for us both. I accept that my relationship may never be the same again with my daughter, but I see her as being the grown up and this is about child whose voice was given a platform through the legal process.
Jasvinder can be contacted via her website, jasvindersanghera.com
The full report can be downloaded here: www.grandparentsunitedforchildren.org.uk
Members who meet estranged grandparents, through their work or otherwise, may wish to refer them to Lorraine Bushell, who runs two support groups – one group in Solihull and one in NW London. Lorraine can be contacted at email@example.com