My parents had an ‘interesting’ marriage. Sometimes they were so interested in each other and their own battles that my brothers and I retreated to, in Social Service terms, a ‘place of safety’ – our grandparents’ house. We just shouted – ‘We’re off to Gran’s’ – and hoped that one of them heard us over the sound of egos clashing.
There we were kings and queens, plied with tea and custard creams. They put our needs first and if there was any comment on why we were there or what was happening at home I can’t remember, but usually within a couple of hours mum would arrive and take us home to a peaceful house and life carried on.
My own son lives with his partner and children 400 miles away so there are no spontaneous visits from grandchildren but I’ve noticed a similar retreat to safety by my granddaughter when voices are raised. She goes to her bedroom and finds her own world in which to be until the laughing and kissing starts again downstairs.
David Norgrove’s family justice review acknowledges the importance of grandparents especially during the stressful period of separation – but goes on to tell us to go to court if access cannot be agreed (Grandparents can cause “damage” to children during divorces by increasing conflict between couples, Daily Telegraph November 3). Does he really think that these parents who hardly notice their children leaving the house when they are dealing with their own needs are going to hold back from using their children as weapons in their final battle? Does he really believe that by taking further court action a grandparent is going to return to that child’s life as a place of safety, as a place untainted by the parents temporary madness?
A child’s best interests
Of course there are good and bad grandparents. When the separation of parents starts I have no doubt that the temptation to stand on the side of your own ‘child’ is overwhelming, but your eyes need to focus on the real children in the battle and stand aside from the drama. What you don’t need is to be told to enter the ring and start your own fight.
And if I do feel my grandchild needs me and access to me is in their best interest, how do I get access to a court? The state by lack of provision in enforcing the child’s right to contact with grandparents belies Norgrove’s assertion that their importance is recognised.
Norgrove makes it clear that speed is the over-riding driver of custody hearings, quality is rarely mentioned but there is a heavy peppering of ‘ in the child’s best interests’ to ensure that anyone criticising the recommendations can be accused, by definition, of putting their own interests first. But my interests are my grandchildren’s interests because I am only interested in them.
Thankfully I don’t have to consider Norgrove as having any impact on my life at the moment. My son has a loving relationship that has its expected difficulties in these uncertain times and I think my role as grandparent is appreciated and at times positively demanded when those sleepless nights have gone on for just too long.
But I know of others whose contact with their grandchilden is limited to passing them in the High Street as they walk hand in hand with their classmates in a crocodile line to the local library. The photographs in their homes are not the laughing portrait sittings that I display in my home but rather photocopies from the local papers yearly run of class photos or prom nights.
The town I grew up in has about 10,000 people. Many of those born there leave but most stay or return when they have children of their own. If I don’t know all of them many will recognise me through a connection with an auntie, cousin or relationship with my two well-known brothers.
It was through one of these tenuous connections that I found myself having coffee with someone I had seen but did not really know for most of my life. She was desperate for advice. Her son and his wife had separated and she hadn’t seen her five grandchildren for over six months. I knew that her son was a hard drinking bully who had a couple of convictions for domestic abuse so had to try hard to not cheer for the courage of the wife for finally leaving.
Court proceedings had started and the mudslinging had started. Jean was a shoulder to cry on for both sides and she continued to have her grandchildren over night once a week and to pick the youngest up from school every day and give them their dinner. Until the evening that her son called in to pick up his laundry and the children told their mother…who told her solicitor…who told her to no-longer allow the children to visit their grandmother.
Access to dad was apparently under a supervision order, which Jean didn’t know, so by allowing her son to pick up his laundry while the children were there she had ‘placed them in danger’.
She kept repeating that he had only shouted through the kitchen door as he took the bag, that he hadn’t even seen the children, probably wouldn’t have wanted to even if he had known. Jean is not a woman blind to the faults of her son, rather she sees the ghost of her own husband in him and has devoted her time to trying to ease her daughter-in-law’s burdens. Now that is forgotten and the sins of the son are being visited on the mother.
Jean finds reading difficult, writing even more so, my original suggestion of a Google search on rights had her looking at me like a deer in headlights. A visit to the Citizens Advice Bureau had left her with a pile of pamphlets that looked untouched and the advice that ‘grandparents have no rights but you could try a solicitor’.
What hope does Norgrove give to Jean and more importantly Jean’s grandchildren? The youngest are now picked up from the school by the eldest who give them their dinner on the church steps opposite the chip shop where dinner was bought. Jean watches them from her kitchen window where once they were warm, well-fed and loved. Of course, this is all in the ‘best interests’ of the children.
Annie Barwick is a nurse, law graduate and (self-described) 'survivor of the legal system' who has 'seen the inability of some people to enforce their legitimate rights in healthcare and the results of a failure to access justice in everyday life'.