No one knows how many grandparents are bringing up their grandchildren because of their children’s problems with drugs or alcohol, but it could run into hundreds of thousands, according to the Mind the Gap project.
One woman’s harrowing story illustrates their urgent need for practical support backed by legislation, as David Gilliver reports. ‘I didn’t even have time to grieve for my daughter,’ says Pam Carnegie.
‘She died from drug and alcohol related illness, and I inherited my four grandchildren – the baby was six months old and she had three others, eight, twelve and fourteen. I’d be sitting on a bus and burst out crying. People would move away because they thought I was mad.’
Pam is now in the fourth year of bringing up her grandchildren and is one of the people who have contributed to Mind the Gap, a joint project between Mentor UK, Adfam and Grandparents Plus, with funding from the Department of Health. Aimed at both grandparents bringing up grandchildren because of their children’s drug or alcohol problems, and the people who work with them, it includes a resource pack, staff training tools and a series of policy recommendations.
The project’s impetus, says Mentor UK’s chief executive Eric Carlin, came from Hidden Harm, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report on the impact of problem drug use on families.
‘It came about through not knowing enough on how to make sure children don’t go on to repeat the same patterns that their parents did,’ he says.
‘What can you put in place to support these families to break that cycle?’
So how big a problem is it? ‘It’s impossible to tell,’ says policy and communications manager at Adfam,
‘It’s been tremendously hard – harder than I ever thought it would be… simply because the system had nothing in place that catered for the needs of grandparents bringing up grandchildren – certainly not four of them. I had three and a half years of struggling to raise them in a two bedroom flat.’
Nicolay Sorensen. ‘According to Grandparents Plus there are around 500,000 grandparents raising their grandchildren and we estimated – based on the information we had available – that 10 per cent of those will be because of parental substance abuse. But it could be ten times that for all we know.’
The key policy implication of the project is the sheer financial hardship faced by the grandparents – having to raise a family at a time when incomes are severely reduced. ‘They’ve got to find money to pay for food, clothing and to get these kids to school,’ says Sorensen. ‘We’ve had stories about grandparents who had to take second jobs or come out of retirement to pay for school uniforms and all the rest of it.
‘This is not something that’s necessarily part of a social services structure,’ he continues, ‘and we often found that – unless they were willing to go down the formal adoption or fostering route – there was very little the grandparents were entitled to in terms of state benefits. A lot of them don’t want to do that, because it might cause conflict with their other children or grandchildren.’
‘It’s been tremendously hard – harder than I ever thought it would be,’ says Pam, ‘simply because the system had nothing in place that catered for the needs of grandparents bringing up grandchildren – certainly not four of them. I had three and a half years of struggling to raise them in a two bedroom flat – at one stage there were seven of us. I separated them into a room for girls and a room for boys and I slept in the living room with the baby.
It was horrendous – trying to cope on a day-to-day basis with the children and battle with the local authority to get suitable housing. It’s a lottery, depending on where you live – you may get something, or you may not.’
‘They feel out on a limb,’ says Nicolay Sorensen. ‘There’s a lack of both financial and emotional support.
How do they cope with being a parent all over again? How do they deal with having a daughter or son who’s a drug and alcohol user? There’s a whole range of problems.’
Unsurprisingly, the project found that financial hardship and social isolation go hand in hand. Most have little idea of where to turn for information and advice and very few have any contact with anyone in a similar situation.
‘You can’t talk to your friends about it because they’re not in the same boat,’ says Pam. ‘You can’t keep moaning to people about it because after a while they see you coming and they run! I’m doing this by myself, without a partner or anything – what man in his right mind is going to want someone in my situation? I can’t go back to work and I have no social life – it’s almost as if I’ve lost my identity. I just manage one day at a time.’
In Pam’s experience, that sense of isolation has been compounded by what she sees as a wall of local authority bureaucracy and lack of help from official agencies. ‘I’m already hurting from the loss of my child, and I’ve got my grandchildren to raise. If these children went into foster care the council would be paying £400 per child per week. As a grandparent, you’d be lucky to get £50 per child. I have been really low, to the extent that I thought of putting them in care. I really was at the end of my tether.’ Pam is classed as a kinship carer and has taken out a residency order, which grants parental responsibilities.
‘Some boroughs, although there’s a residency order in place, will not financially support the grandparent at all,’ she says. ‘There needs to be legislation to ensure that an appropriate payment is attached to grandparent carers, and it should be the same wherever you are. It’s a genuine unwillingness to value the work we’re doing in caring for these children with the minimum of support.’ ‘There has to be greater discretion on the part of social services to provide payments to grandparent carers,’ says Nicolay Sorensen. ‘Family carers do not fit into their current model of working in a way that accommodates their quite specific needs.’
Mind the Gap wants to see payments to kinship carers standardized and on a comparable level with payments to foster carers in recognition of the ongoing support they provide.’ That would be a really good start,’ he says. ‘It’s that immediate financial stuff that’s the biggest issue.’
Another policy recommendation is for grandparents to have access to appropriate respite care and childcare arrangements. ‘If I become a foster carer then I’ll get respite,’ says Pam, ‘so I think I’m going to have to go through that process. I’ve had no break since my daughter died. Foster carers get respite, three weeks paid holiday and the support of the social services. Kinship carers get nothing.’
As well as managing her own grief, Pam has been dealing with that of her children, along with their growing sense of resentment against what they see as an unsympathetic system. ‘After a while I got them to do a little bit of counselling,’ she says, ‘but they say “how can we go and talk to people who don’t care about us, because if they cared we wouldn’t be living in a two bedroom flat for three and a half years?’’’
There is a real need for training social workers, drugs workers, teachers and others to be aware of the practical and emotional implications of becoming a kinship carer, says the report. ‘My grandchildren came with baggage because of my daughter’s addiction, and when they came to me I changed,’ says Pam. ‘They lost their nan and got this person who was now setting boundaries and bedtimes.
We’ve had to develop a new relationship, and it’s hard.’ ‘It crosses over so many different policy areas,’ says Nicolay Sorensen.
‘Grandparents are often left not knowing where to turn. There are some excellent projects working with the children of substance misusers but they’re few and far between. You have drug and alcohol treatment services like the local DAATs, but they don’t always link up very well with children’s services and often don’t have the capacity to deal with family issues. There really is a communications gap.’
‘We all get sick of saying there should be more joined-up working,’ he says, ‘but that really is the case. I find it hard to find models we can recommend, other than where there’s a local champion who has some input into the commissioning process of the local DAAT, or someone from social services who’s passionate about the subject and drives that policy through at a local level. But relying on local champions obviously means that it doesn’t happen in most places.’
‘A lot of the grandparents feel that they’ve failed,’ says Eric Carlin. ‘They feel they’ve taken over caring for their grandchildren because they have to, but also because they’ve failed as parents, so quite often they’re ashamed to go and ask for help. With BME communities especially, we found that problems were more hidden and there was much more of a sense that the family ought to pick up the care of the children, and more of a stigma about approaching social services. We need to sensitise people like social services departments about the shame and all the complicated issues around this.’
‘When it gets hard for me I get down and cry,’ says Pam. ‘Not in front of them, because I’m always doing something, going somewhere, picking one of them up, cooking, washing, ironing. All the children’s needs are different, and then there’s my own children who feel they’ve lost their mum – they’ve got to share me now. I don’t know what the long term effects on these kids will be, but I know things would improve with better financial help and support.
‘When I took them on what got me was that no one wanted to know what the needs of the family were,’ she says.
‘Everything was me banging on doors. To me it seems it’s this way by design, because if they recognise it they have to do something about it. I don’t believe there’s really a willingness to address it because everything’s down to budget. I don’t think that anyone’s really thinking about what the long-term social implications of situations like mine are going to be.’
From; DDN Drink and Drugs news www.drinkanddrugs.net