Every kind of human emotion, in all its turbulent, upbeat, downbeat, rollercoaster craziness, is battered and bashed across a table in a quiet upstairs meeting room above Leith’s Kirkgate shops.
There’s bitterness and anger, there’s a laugh or two. And, as one of the women sitting at the large conference table recalls the moment she realised that, at pension age, she was about to be handed her own messed-up daughter’s baby to care for, there’s heartbreaking misplaced shame, worry and utter terror.
Frances is now counting the weeks until her 69th birthday. Smartly dressed and well spoken, she should be sitting, feet up, relaxing in front of the television. Job raising her own family done, her childcare might be expected to simply involve precious time with her grandchild.
Instead, something happened – she’s so fiercely protective of the little one she now cares for that she won’t say precisely what.
However, it’s clear that as her daughter’s relationship dramatically shattered, the person caught in the crossfire was Frances’s six-months-old granddaughter.
And rather than see her taken into care, she did what every loving grandparent would do without question: she opened her home to her. Five years later, and she’s still there.
Today, Frances is among a growing, often underground, army of grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings, suddenly thrust into looking after young relations who might otherwise end up in care. On one hand they are certainly loving and determined to help them, on the other, desperately trying to keep their own heads above water amid the stress, pressure and turmoil of their situation.
Recently, in a rare show of discontent, they gathered under the banner of the Kinship Care Alliance and marched on the Scottish Parliament to urge better recognition of the job they do and to call for improved support.
While MSPs consider their pleas, back at the small Kirkgate committee room, the Leith branch of Kinship Care gathers to let off steam, seek advice and just share the fears and worries each faces every day.
The scale of their emotional burden debated across the conference table, turns out to be enormous. From the sudden financial stress of providing from a pension for sometimes young children, to having to find their way through complex legal processes, there’s the constant worry over what’s happening in their children’s often fractured lives to agonising over how best to raise traumatised grandchildren.
For some like Frances, there is another nagging worry. “I’ll be 69 soon,” she says softly. “I think to myself ‘how much longer will I be here for her?’ That is a big concern for me.
“And you’re embarrassed about your situation,” she admits. “You worry all the time that people will judge you.”
She talks movingly of careering towards her eighth decade, confronted with things a young mum might cruise through. Buying clothes for a five-year old is a stress, she admits, she frets she’ll choose outfits that are too old fashioned. Meanwhile, the fear of a time when her granddaughter brings home school work that requires a computer, chills her.
At least the monthly meetings provide sanctuary where carers can chat freely, whether exchanging advice on how to negotiate a legal minefield scattered with explosive jargon, to occasionally even laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Like Lesley, who’s 51 with two grandsons aged seven and 12 years old to care for. “Last thing I thought I’d be dealing with now is a boy writing all over my walls,” she grins, rolling her eyes.
Like Cathy, 49, who has looked after her six-year-old grandson for three years, losing her job as her employer insisted she focus more on work and not his needs.
Her daughter, she says with a shake of her head, insists the situation is only temporary. “It’s been three years!” she howls, laughing at the ridiculousness of that idea. “It’s all ‘I’ll have him back when I’ve got a job, or once the house is sorted, or once I’ve had a holiday’. Temporary?”
The struggle has taken its toll on Pamela, 45, who has cared for her ten-year-old grandson since he was a toddler. She was just 37 and recovering from a heart attack when her daughter suddenly died. Amid her own grief at losing her daughter, Pamela then had to confront the issue of what would happen to her toddler son and his three-months-old brother.
“I’d been ill, I really thought I was going to die,” Pamela remembers. “But everyone was saying ‘you need to take these bairns’. I couldn’t cope with the youngest, I couldn’t take him.
“It’s been hard,” she nods. “For years I was saying there was something wrong with this lad but no-one listened. It was only recently that they diagnosed him with ADHD and gave him medication.”
A lot to cope with for any parent, never mind a grandparent with her own health troubles. But many children bring baggage, nods Jim Cameron, 55, who along with wife Val, 53, look after two teenage granddaughters.
“These kids see so much. Things children shouldn’t see.
“Often to get them help, you need to have them referred through social work involvement, but some are scared to do that because they think they’ll lose the children completely. They’re on their tod.”
Everyone, says Yvonne Ramsay, 49, who looked after her granddaughter for more than 14 years, has a different story, but most have the same problems. “I suppose I was lucky, I was a young granny. But I was always conscious that if it was as hard as it was for me, how difficult must it be for some others.”
Her teenage daughter became involved in the drugs scene, she explains. “When my granddaughter was five months old, my daughter rang and asked me to take her. I went to pick her up from a drugs den.
“I had tried to help my daughter but she kept us at arm’s length. As grandparents, we had no rights to go and remove her child, so we had to wait for her to agree for us to take her. She went on to have another two children who had to go into care because I just couldn’t do it. I was bringing up three kids as it was, it would have been too much.”
Having stepped in to help, Yvonne says she was then encouraged to head to court for a Section 11 order to give her some legal parental rights.
“There was no financial support,” she remembers. “My parents died within 13 months of each other, I’d sold their house so had some money but that went against me and I had to pay the £5000 for the order out of my own pocket.
“Even then it turned out my daughter still had rights and still caused a lot of bother.”
Yvonne and everyone else around the table are certain they are just the tip of the iceberg, that there are many more carers simply struggling through either too embarrassed or frightened to seek support.
“You think you’re the only one in this situation,” adds Yvonne, urging others to seek out their local Kinship Care group. “You think no-one will understand or believe you because it’s so horrific. You’re embarrassed.
“Then you’re worried you will be in the professionals’ spotlight, the judge hearing the case will have an opinion, ‘Well, you failed with your first child, why give you the chance to do the same thing with your grandchild?’,” she sighs.
“As a grandparent, you do whatever you can, but it’s hard.
“It’s not just taking on an extra mouth to feed,” she adds. “It’s far more complicated than just that.”
• Leith Kinship Care group meets at the community centre at Kirkgate once a month. For details, contact 07990 795635.
RELATIVES OFTEN PLAY A VITAL ROLE IN CHILDREN’S UPBRINGING
It is estimated that at least 173,000 UK children – one in 77 – are brought up by grandparents or other relatives.
However just a fraction of that figure is officially recognised by social work departments as
being ‘looked after children’, with many more being cared for by relatives as an informal arrangement.
Often that can mean grandparents looking after very young children without any financial or additional support.
Earlier this year individual kinship care groups formed The Scottish Kinship Care Alliance to help push for better provisions and status for families caring for relatives’ children. They argue that the current ‘postcode lottery’ system of support for relatives should be scrapped in favour of a national allowance.
And they argue that children in kinship care – often traumatised and vulnerable – are denied the same kind of counselling and support as children who end up in local authority care.
Last month the Alliance marched on the Scottish Parliament, arguing that the new Children and Young People’s Bill threatens to cut, not increase, support for relative carers.
Chair of the Alliance Anne Swartz says relatives play a vital role and save the Scottish Government at least £600 million a year in avoided child care costs. “These are the same children who would have gone to foster or residential care but have been taken in by a relative instead.
“Yet, the essential support services available to the kids if they go to foster care are denied when they are placed with family. We are talking about trauma therapy, educational support and basic financial allowances.
“Kinship Care provides the best outcomes for these kids, and yet the majority of our kids are given no support at all.”