Western Mail, 19th March 2008
Around 50,000 Welsh children may be being denied access to their grandparents because of the breakdown of family relationships, new figures reveal.
Family solicitors say many grandparents accept the loss as a fact of life, without realising they can take steps to try and establish contact.
For most children in Wales, spending time with granny or granddad is a basic and enriching part of growing up.
It is estimated that nearly two thirds of all childcare is now provided by grandparents, who are therefore estimated to save more than £250m every year in Wales.
The figures, from Age Concern and the Grandparents’ Association, illustrate the big disparity between Wales’ army of hands-on grandparents, and the many people barred from seeing their grandchildren.
The most common reasons for loss of contact is breakdown of the parent’s relationship.
Tensions between the parents and their own parents or parents-in-law can also prevent children meeting their grandparents.
Distance is another obstacle for some families, with many parents having found work hundreds of miles from childhood homes.
“The statistics are very worrying” said Kate Edwards, a solicitor with Cardiff-based Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice. “And from our experience, the numbers appear to be on the increase.
“While grandparents who are denied access to their grandchildren must feel hurt and angry, the fact remains that legally grandparents are not automatically guaranteed any rights to their grandchildren
“But there are a number of positive things that grandparents can do to best assure that they will be allowed to develop relationships with their grandchildren.
“Parents mostly keep their children away from their own parents due to conflicts that exist between the adults. The breakdown of a marriage or long-term partnership can be upsetting for all concerned, but for grandparents it can be even more so if contact with grandchildren is denied.
“Loss of contact tends to happen when grandparents get stuck in the middle of a dispute between the parents, but occasionally it happens when, say, the daughter has had an argument with her parents.”
Ms Edwards recently conducted research with a group of retired people in Rhondda who had no access to their grandchildren – and had no idea what they could do about it.
Michael Phillips, of Age Concern Cymru, said “It’s a great shame that so many children in Wales are denied access to their grandparents. Many children see their grandparents as friends, or even confidantes.
“Grandparents can contribute financially, their expertise and their life experiences, all of which can help children develop in an increasingly difficult world.”
Distance prevented some children seeing their grandparents. And with many adults having children later in life, some grandparents could be too old to travel long distances easily.
“A lot of people are leaving the areas in which they grew up to find work, so families are spread further apart,” he said. “For older grandparents, the mobility issues can start to take effect.
“Younger grandparents, in their 60s could have less time to visit grandchildren because they’re looking after their parents, who are in their 90s”
Ros Williams. From Ogmore Valley, near Bridgend, said her close relationship with her granddaughter Alex, aged two, benefited all in the family.
“Life is very timetabled and structured for parents. Grandparents have that little bit of time to chill out,” said Mrs Williams, 58.
“I’m helping my family by looking after her now and again, but on the other hand I’m getting something out of this.
“All people want to be needed. Alex fits that role very well for me, after I got to the point where my four children didn’t need me.
“I’ve got younger people in my life. They keep me young.”
What grandparents can do
Cardiff lawyer Kate Edwards, of Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice, has the following advice for grandparents seeking to establish contact with a grandchild.
• Write to whichever parent is withholding contact, usually the child’s mother.
• Tell the mother or father how much you miss seeing your grandchild, and that your grandchild will miss you.
• If the parents are separated, point out that the child has effectively lost one parent and a further loss is imposed on the child by denying them a relationship with grandparents.
• You can also point out that the parent is effectively denying the child a relationship with relatives representing half of their generic original and half of their identity.
• If the parent is unresponsive, see what mediation services are available locally. If mediation is possible, suggest this to the parent.
• The last resort is an application to the court, you can then apply for leave to apply for a contact order, followed by a substantive contact application.
• In any discussions, don’t complain about your loss of contact but emphasise the child’s welfare as the priority. This is the approach the court will take.