One of my fondest childhood memories is of clambering over rocks along the undercliff with my grandfather one gloriously sunny day during school holidays. My family emigrated when I was still a child, so I spent too little time with him and did not know him well. He had passed away by the time I returned to the UK as a young man.
Fast forward, and in what seems like the blink of an eye, I have become a grandfather myself. I spend as many precious hours as I can with grandson Archie, who instinctively seems to know that I am the one who will let him get away with much more than his parents allow.
We are also foster carers, looking after vulnerable children who are unable to live with their families because of the risk of neglect or abuse. We are keenly aware that a child who is taken in to care is not only separated from his mum and dad but also from his extended family. And as we navigate around the wreckage of a home in turmoil, we cannot help but be moved by the plight of grandparents, who are left devastated by the intervention of social services and, as is sometimes the case, the police. In the complex and often painful discussions that follow over access to children the focus, understandably, is on supervised contact with parents. But this can mean that grandparents may feel excluded from the process, particularly if they are in conflict with one or both parents. There is limited time available for children to see their families, and grandparents are not always considered a priority. It is tough for grandparents who live many miles away, and who must make do with an occasional phone call or letter.
An investigation into the circumstances surrounding the child's mistreatment can also involve the grandparents. They may ultimately be found blameless but the sense of guilt and shame remains with them forever. They ask themselves if they could have done more to prevent the mistreatment of their grandchild, or whether they failed as parents and contributed to this catastrophe. These are profound questions about the way they have lived their lives, which often come at a time when they are ill-placed to deal with the emotional burden. They may find themselves at loggerheads with the other grandparents, amid recriminations over who is to blame. Sometimes there is also sadness and frustration at being unable to offer a sanctuary, because of age or circumstance, to allow a child to remain within the family: mind and body let you down at the cruellest time.
It is crucial for foster carers to maintain a relationship with other family members, for the sake of the children in their care, without appearing to take sides in bitter family arguments. It is a major challenge to keep the peace and to ensure that children, particularly the youngest, are not exposed unnecessarily to tensions. Most grandparents understand this but for many it can be an extremely emotional time. They will often quiz foster carers for information that is denied to them, for legal reasons, by social work teams or legal guardians. But mostly they seek reassurance that their loved ones are being cared for in a safe and loving home.
Grandparents have been a feature of many of the placements we have been involved with, and we have maintained cordial and constructive relationships that have undoubtedly been beneficial to the children. They have been able to offer invaluable insight into a child's experiences and memories, which helped us to manage behaviour in a positive way. Sadly, not every grandparent is a benign influence. But, in our experience, grandparents are a good starting point in the search for positive influences and role models.
We encourage children, particularly the youngest, to talk about happy moments they have spent with grandparents, and we ask for photographs to put up in their bedrooms so that they have a reminder of the happy times they have spent together. For it is often a grandparent who has provided an oasis of calm in a chaotic life, a degree of stability and continuity that may have been absent in their own homes. We find bedtime stories that Grandma used to read, and DVDs they once watched together. Home baking and cooking often rekindle memories of happier times spent with grandparents. We are also grateful to our daughters' grandma, my mother-in-law, who has always been a willing surrogate grandmother to other people's children in our care
We are still close to siblings who stayed with us for one year and now live with their grandmother, who has become a close friend to us. We have been able to spend time with the children as they grow, healthy and happy, which has been a blessing. One day, I hope, they will join Archie and me as we clamber over the rocks at the seaside.