‘It’s so important to speak to someone who’s been there’

Andrea Beard from Waterlooville with her granddaughter Dakota -Lilly O'Sullivan, three
Andrea Beard from Waterlooville with her granddaughter Dakota -Lilly O'Sullivan, three
Mike and Elaine Friend pictured on their wedding day

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Once children have flown the nest, parents may look forward to never having to worry about changing nappies or making school packed lunches again.

But many find themselves becoming parents a second time around when they take on the full-time care of their grandchildren.

In England it is estimated that up to 200,000 children are looked after by their grandparents.

One of those is Andrea Beard, 49, from Waterlooville.

Three-and-a-half years-ago her daughter Zoe’s relationship broke down while she was pregnant and once the baby was born she found it difficult to cope.

Andrea was regularly driving between her Maytree Gardens home and her daughter’s home in London, until they decided the best way forward was for her to take on the care of Dakota, now three, full-time.

It was a difficult 18 months for the whole family, but it had a happy ending. Zoe and her partner are back together and living as a family.

Andrea says: ‘I lived in Hayes, Middlesex, with my daughter Zoe and moved to Waterlooville to look after my parents.

‘When my daughter split up from her partner she didn’t cope very well at all. I was travelling back to London all the time and eventually we took the decision that I would look after Dakota as Zoe was very depressed.

‘As soon as I took her home I informed all the relevant authorities and was granted a temporary residence order.

‘This was okay for a while, but Dakota’s other grandparents found out that I was looking after her and, with her father, we ended up in court.’

She adds: ‘I was fighting for a permanent order for Dakota, but in the end I had to give her back to her dad.

‘In all I looked after her for just over a year. It was tough going. The biggest problem was social services.

‘I know there are lots of grandparents in the position I was in, but they choose not to tell the authorities because they don’t want to have to deal with social services.

‘Lots of grandparents have to go through court battles and it’s daunting. It was very unpleasant.

‘Luckily Dakota was a baby at the time so she didn’t pick up on it, but it’s not good for the children.

‘Court hearings are very stressful for them as well, but very often that is part of being grandparents who foster.

‘Her dad is now a fantastic father. He and my daughter are back together and engaged.

‘He has stepped up and become the dad I wanted him to be.

‘He’s working hard as an apprentice and Dakota is with her mum and dad where she needs to be.’

But for many grandparents that is not the outcome and they are the permanent carers for the grandchildren while trying to navigate their way through the unfamiliar and daunting court system and intervention from social services.

Andrea has now helped set up a support group at Waterlooville Community Centre for other people in her position.

She says: ‘I’m lucky that Dakota, her mum and dad are a happy family now. That’s all that matters to me.

‘That’s what all grandparents want, but they don’t know how to help their children take those steps.

‘It is so important to be able to speak to someone who’s been there.

‘And it’s important to be able to go and have a tea, coffee and a biscuit and talk to somebody.

‘You can go to the group and have a grumble about anything and everything – let off a bit of steam.

‘You can say what you like because no-one is going to judge you.

‘There is a solicitor and Citizens’ Advice Bureau volunteer at the meetings. Social services have promised to send someone to offer advice, but they have not materialised yet.’

Andrea adds: ‘This is something that grandparents need.

‘A lot of grandparents have no support and think, “I’m doing okay on my own, I don’t need help” but they do.

‘If they want to bring the children along they are always welcome. And we can arrange transport.’

Liam Moloney, from the charity Havant and East Hampshire Community First, is the project leader for the Waterlooville Community Centre support group.

He says: ‘We asked grandparents what support they wanted and a lot of them said they wanted a support group where they could come and talk with other grandparents who have been through similar experiences in an informal and friendly setting.

‘They also told us that they wanted to be able to gain information and advice from professionals, such as solicitors, who could answer some of their queries, especially around the legal aspects of caring for a grandchild.

‘I’m available for grandparents to contact if they need any information, or receive support of any kind.

‘I will always do my best to help them with their issue, or put them in contact with someone who can.’

The next meeting is March 18 from 11am to 1pm. Call 0300 500 8085 or go to cfheh.org.uk.

Support is available

Lynn Chesterman is the chief executive of the national charity Grandparents’ Association, which supports people like Andrea Beard.

It was set up in 1987 by a group of grandparents whose grandchildren had been put into care, adopted from care or were not allowed any contact with them.

She says: ‘It’s tough in lots of ways. But many are too terrified to put their heads above the parapet and tell local authorities that they are looking after their grandchildren in case they put them in care.

‘So they don’t get the support. And quite a lot of local authorities demand you give up work when there are still mortgages to be paid.

‘But our helpline has, in the past three months, helped grandparents claim up to £300,000 in benefits people did not realise they are entitled to.’

As well as the financial hardship that grandparents may have to endure, it can also be emotionally draining.

Lynn adds: ‘Parents can find themselves in a situation where they have to cut off all contact with their own children for the sake of the grandchild.

‘It therefore makes it a massive decision to take on the care of your grandchild.’

The charity also supports grandparents who have lost contact with their grandchildren.

For more information or to make a donation, go to grandparents-association.org.uk. The helpline is open Mon-Fri, 10am-4pm. Call 0845 4349585.