Keeping it in the family

How bad would things have to be before you took custody of your grandchildren from a parent unable or unwilling to cope? With government plans afoot to turn grandparents into paid childminders, Ursula Kenny talked to three people forced to raise a child for the second time

ANGELA HARRISON (below with daughter and grandson) is a 53-year- old divorcee. She has looked after her eight-year-old grandson Max since he was 16 months old because her adoptive daughter Jamie, 25, is a prostitute and drug addict. Jamie is currently taking heroin and crack but has managed to get away from her pimp. She has had two other children since Max, both of whom have been adopted.

"We adopted Jamie at six weeks because we couldn't have children. She was, apparently, a normal child; very bright, she played the clarinet, did normal things. Then in her early teens she dyed her hair lots of different colours and got a nose stud. At 15 the police rang to say she'd been arrested for possession of cannabis. Strangely, I think that was the hardest moment of this whole saga. It was such a shock because it was totally beyond my experience then; it was like something on television. When she was 16 she got pregnant. The father was a local Casanova who only kept up contact with Max in the beginning. I've been through a lot; I know what pimps are now, how they behave. That's what my life has come to.

"Jamie has been in and out of prison. For the sake of stability I have a residence order for Max which means I am in charge of him and he is my priority nowadays. I used to worry sick about Jamie, but now I unplug the telephone at night in case she calls. She used to ring in the middle of the night and say she'd been hit by a pimp or something and I'd feel torn between her and the baby upstairs, so I'd end up dragging him out of bed and into the night with me to try and find her. The crises aren't actually the worst times because I think adrenaline gets you through - it's after that you feel so down and awful. I've realised now that I just can't help her any more. I've cut off from her because I've had to. I have wished her dead, because this way it feels as if she is dead but I can't mourn.

"I tell Max everything about his mother's drug problem. I think as far as possible the truth is best. When he was two and a half we went to see her in prison and I was advised by a professional to lie to him and say we were in a hospital. It went very wrong because during the visit she sat still on the other side of a table and Max thought something terrible had happened to her legs. He was worried sick and I don't lie anymore. As far as others are concerned I tell people like the doctor and dentist that he lives with me because his mummy takes drugs and that he calls me mum and her mummy. It avoids confusion.

"Max actually adores his mother; she adores him too but she causes him a lot of pain. She doesn't visit when she says she's going to and promises presents and then lets him down. I feel so sad for him when he cries about it. I'm never angry about having to have Max though. I enjoy my life now; things might have been quite boring otherwise! I do feel a lot of sadness about not being able to have the other two but I couldn't cope and Max does visit them. Setting up the support group has been a good outlet for me. At 53 I go to conferences, talk at universities. I used to be a secretary and I feel a lot better about my working life now. There are very happy moments like when he made me a Mother's Day card this year thanking me for everything I've done for him. He is compensation for Jamie."

Margaret is a naval widow whose daughter Jane, 37, is anorexic, bulimic and an alcoholic. Margaret has looked after Jane's eleven-year-old daughter Cecelia since she was three.

"Jane took us all in for ages. She was a classical ballet dancer and a very good actress; she is also very beautiful. She's the eldest of three very bright and gifted children but she has always been - the Scots have a wonderful word for it - `fey'; slightly eccentric. She did queer things and was slightly alien to everything around her. At 15 or 16 she developed strange eating habits. By 17 she was away at ballet school and an alcoholic.

"She got pregnant during a disastrous marriage. Her husband had been in care and was sad and inadequate. Neither of them could cope with the baby and I got very concerned. It took me ages to convince social services there was a problem. Eventually they called unannounced and found her drunk. She was given another chance but then they rang me to say they'd found her drunk in a gutter and asked me to come and pick Cecelia up. At first Cecelia was fostered but after visiting her, I decided I would have her.

"I was terribly angry with Jane at first. I'm actually not that keen on children generally except Cecelia and my own. Other people have strange attitudes and often say how lucky I am, but it's very hard work. Once though, when she had to go to hospital with croup and I slept in this bed next to her, a very tall female doctor came round and said `You're lucky...' and I thought `Here we go again,' but then she said `You're a lucky little girl to have such a nice granny.' It totally took the wind out of my sails. I've never forgotten it. Nobody had ever said anything like that to me and the tears just rolled down my cheeks. I'm terribly glad I did it. We do fight and I get tired, but every night we make up before we go to bed. We hug. We thank God we've got each other."

Kathleen is 67 and her husband Arthur is 75. Their daughter Susan, 39, is in a Cheshire home for the foreseeable future suffering from the neurological wasting illness cerebella ataxia and they are bringing up her ten-year- old son Stephen.

"Cerebella ataxia is a nervous disease and is thought to be genetic. It started towards the end of junior school with loss of balance. Later Susan got married and had Stephen in her late twenties, despite being told it was too risky. She thought she could cope but sadly the birth just made her worse. It became obvious very quickly that she was unable to cope and her husband found it all too stressful - they are now divorced. The social services decided that Stephen would be fostered from Monday to Friday and that we would have him at weekends. Then they decided that it would be better, long-term, to have him adopted and my husband suggested that we keep him. The thought of him going into permanent care was unbearable. We eventually got a residence order.

"He was a bit difficult at first; rather disturbed. He climbed everything, broke things and we had to watch him twenty-four hours a day. He also went through a strange period at school as a reaction to other kids asking about his situation. He's over that now. But he does get terribly anxious about anything happening to us. I suppose he thinks about illness and death more than most children. We're at an age when our friends are dying and we recently went to my mother's funeral. We want one of our sons to have him when we die. We've had marvellous support from families of his friends at school and from the neighbours. We seem to cope and it is such a pleasure. Nowadays everything is so much easier than when I had my four - disposable nappies are a godsend, maybe not for the environment but for parents, what a joy! Every so often I do get so tired that I just stop working properly, like the time I ran out of petrol and hadn't got any money on me. I'm doing this to let others who might be considering it know: it can be done. "

Some names have been changed. If you are concerned about a child whom you believe may be in danger, contact your local social services. The Grandparent & Grandchild Support Group, run by Angela Harrison, can be contacted on: 01789 299657 (Midlands & North) 01202 522922 (South England & Scotland) 0191 813 1921 (London)

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