A million children in Britain are banned from seeing their grandparents because of family breakdown.
Margaret Deuchar’s cosy front room is filled with photographs of her granddaughters. Pictures of the girls as babies, toddlers taking their first, faltering steps and sitting with their hair in neat bunches with their grandparents beaming beside them.
Margaret, 64, points to the pictures proudly - but her eyes fill with tears as she talks about the grandchildren she adores.
Because the children in the pictures - raised by their grandparents after their mother died suddenly - were later torn from Margaret’s arms, innocent victims of their father’s new relationship and a legal system that gives loving grandparents no rights at all.
No more rights than a stranger: A million children in Britain are banned from seeing their grandparents when families breakdown
Margaret was forced to spend £5,000 of her life’s savings, and go through a year-long legal battle to be allowed limited visitation rights.
She says softly: ‘We were allowed only one visit every five or six weeks. Just a few precious hours to try to be the grandparents the girls need so badly. It’s been so hard.
When we first met up with the girls after nearly a year apart, Sophie clung to me and said: “Why can’t we come and stay with you?” and it nearly broke my heart.
‘I simply didn’t have an answer. How can you tell a child you love that her father’s new partner doesn’t want you in their lives?’
Sadly, Margaret and husband Jimmy are not alone in their anguish. More and more grandparents are finding that, through divorce, relationship breakdown or bereavement, they are being ripped out of the lives of the grandchildren they love so much.
The Grandparents Association estimates that there are more than a million grandchildren in the UK who are not allowed to see their grandparents.
And with divorce figures ever rising, this sad statistic can only get worse. There is a bleak incomprehension among this generation of ostracised grandparents.
As Jimmy Deuchars says: ‘We are the old guard, a generation who believe marriage is for life. Grandparents provide a vital part of the secure base that a child needs to grow up without damage.
‘The family should be rock solid and unquestioning. That concept has all but disappeared today.’
‘We were cut out of their lives’
Family life for Jimmy and Margaret was torn apart 15 years ago when their 25-year-old daughter was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. She had just given birth to her younger daughter, Charlotte, and made a heartbreaking plea to her parents as she lay dying.
Jimmy, from Glasgow, falters as he recalls the vows made that day. ‘It was just before she died. We were sitting at her hospital bedside and she clung to us and said: “Please, please look after the girls.”
‘We were all in shock but we held her, kissed her and reassured her that Sophie, then two, and newborn Charlotte would be loved and cared for by us for the rest of our lives.’
Grieving for their mother, the two girls embraced the stability of their grandparents’ home. But after three years everything changed.
Margaret recalls: ‘Our son-in-law met a new partner, who lived in Liverpool. I don’t think she ever really wanted the girls, but she wanted him.
‘He scooped them up and took them down to live with her in Liverpool. She didn’t want anything to do with his late wife’s family, and we were simply cut out of their lives.
‘We were told we would be allowed to see them every month, but then contact just slipped away - it was “too cold” to bring them north, or they were busy.
‘For at least six months we did not see them at all, which broke our hearts. My husband said he didn’t want to go on living if he couldn’t see his granddaughters, which was why we took legal action so quickly.’
For this gentle couple, whose lives have always revolved around family, the shock was immense. ‘I could not believe anyone would do this,’ Jimmy says. ‘We were the girls’ security. They loved their dad, but they relied on us.’
Like many other grandparents before them, Jimmy and Margaret were utterly horrified to discover they had no more rights to see their grandchildren than a stranger.
‘We’re not wealthy, but we knew we had to do something. We saw a lawyer, and said we had to battle this out in the courts,’ Margaret says.
The forgotten victims: Many grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren out of spite when parents separate
After a year of wrangling, it was agreed they could see the girls once a month.
‘It was heart-breaking, but better than nothing.’ Jimmy says, ‘When we saw them after all that time apart, we were all crying.
‘We met up halfway between Glasgow and Liverpool, at Carlisle Castle, and as they came running up to us with their arms outstretched, we both burst into tears.’
For the next three years, the couple drove to Carlisle every month to see their granddaughters.
‘There were always a thousand hugs and kisses. They’d ask us: “Why? Why couldn’t we see you, Grandad?” ‘What could we say? We took them out for lunch, they ran about in the castle grounds, and then it would be time to say goodbye.
‘Every time it was so painful, and I’d drive home with my wife in floods of tears.’
Jimmy points to the photographs of his granddaughters. The couple see the girls, now 15 and 17, around 11 times a year, including holidays.
‘They are the most important thing in our lives,’ he says. It is a tragic truth that all too often in the bitter fallout from a divorce or break-up, children are used as pawns to ‘punish’ the other partner - while the grandparents are caught up in this emotional blackmail.
In 90 per cent of cases, as women generally win custody of the children, it is the ex-husband and his parents who are cast out into the cold.
This is something that 56-year-old Pamela Wilson from Telford, Shropshire, recognises all too well.
Even though she gave up her job as an occupational therapist to look after her son’s daughter, Jenny, from the age of nine months, after her son and his partner separated Pamela found she had no right to see the child.
This was despite the fact that Jenny, now nine, virtually lived with Pamela and her husband Ian, 60, a retired textile manufacturer, for four years.
‘We didn’t even have time to say a proper goodbye,’ Pamela says. ‘One minute I was playing with Jenny in the front room, and the next, following an unexpected ring at the doorbell, I found myself staring into the faces of two uniformed police officers telling me they had come to take Jenny home to her mother.
‘I was so shocked I did not know how to reply. All I could think was that I had to let Jenny, who was crying and confused, go with them. I remember cuddling her as I helped her into her coat, feeling as if my heart was being torn from my body.’
The police had been called because Jenny’s mother said she had not authorised her daughter to stay with her grandparents.
‘The police were sympathetic, and told my son he could apply for an interim parental visitation order.
He was granted this, but Jenny’s mother said she did not want us seeing Jenny, as she felt we “undermined” her as a parent.’
Pamela spent up to £17,000 in legal fees to gain access to her granddaughter.
Contact has been re-established, but, as she says: ‘I am walking on eggshells all the time.
‘Like so many other grandparents who go through the courts to gain access to their grandchildren, we have had to endure social services investigations and had repeated meetings with Cafcas (the body which determines and arranges contact following divorce or a legal separation).
‘It is as if we - grandparents who just want the right to see our grandchildren - are on trial. You wouldn’t believe the allegations made against us by our son’s former partner to try to stop us seeing Jenny.
‘No one listens to the children. Jenny would cry because she missed us so much, but that counted for nothing. The resident parent rules the roost, and what she says goes.’
‘Children are not emotional pawns’
Pamela is also in contact with many other grandparents in the same situation. Most, she says, are terrified to speak out because they are worried it will jeopardise what little progress they may have made.
She says: ‘I find it hard to believe that a mother will stop her children seeing their grandparents - who only want to give them unconditional love, treats and security - just to make a former partner “pay” for the breakdown in a relationship.
‘What’s happened to the notion of responsibility and mature behaviour? Children are not emotional pawns.
‘When we were apart from Jenny, it must have been so confusing for her. She had no idea why we’d suddenly disappeared, having played such a big part in her upbringing. It worries me that children are being made emotionally unstable by losing grandparents from their lives.’
Shockingly, in the most extreme cases of families torn asunder and grandparents cast adrift, some children are told their grandparents have died.
Lynn Chesterburn, Chief Executive of the Grandparents Association, says: ‘Parents, caught up in their own misery of the divorce, are depriving their children of the one source of continuity, security and stability for their own selfish ends: as a tool to get at their partner.’
After his experience, Jimmy Deuchars is campaigning for a change in the law.
‘We need this charter for grandparents,’ he says. ‘The relationship between a young child and a grandparent is so special, and yet there are a million children in the UK wondering what they did that is so bad they’re no longer allowed to see granny or grandpa.’
Support: Conservative leader David Cameron is backing the ‘Grandparents Charter’
The good news is that changes are in motion. Peter Harris is chairman of the Grandparents Association, which is urgently campaigning for a change in the law to allow grandparents legal access to their grandchildren.
A ten-minute rule bill has been heard in the House of Commons, and was passed unanimously. Now they must wait for the lengthy process in trying to make the ‘Grandparents Charter’ law.
The association recently had a meeting with David Cameron, who gives their cause his full backing.
‘It is appalling that grandparents have no more right in law to see their grandchildren than a complete stranger,’ says Peter. ‘A handful of grandparents have fought their way through the courts to have contact with their grandchildren, but it is extremely expensive and emotionally draining.
‘Every month we receive at least 700 calls from distressed grandparents. For many, time is running out. They are fighting not just to see their beloved grandchildren, but to build a relationship before they die.’
One such ‘victim’ is Sally Holt, a frail 80-year-old widow, who hasn’t seen the grandson she adores for ten years.
Sally, who lives in sheltered housing near Exeter, says: ‘I don’t have a lot to offer in terms of wealth and material possessions, but I would love to be able to hold my grandson, and tell him how much I love him.’
Sally has been estranged from Tim, now 14, since her son, Michael, and his wife divorced when Tim was four.
His wife and her new partner moved away with Tim, and have since had two daughters. The divorce was long, and acrimonious, and Sally’s son Michael has only sporadic contact with his son.
‘It was supposed to be every other weekend,’ Sally says. ‘But his ex-wife was always finding reasons why they shouldn’t meet - Tim had a cold, or he’d been invited to a friend’s house.’
‘I was a throwaway relation’
At the same time as the divorce, Michael was made redundant, and he is also prone to depression.
Relations between mother and son have buckled under the strain of loss and stress.
Sally says: ‘For four years, Tim was the light of my life. Michael’s an only child, and Tim is my only - grandchild. I used to babysit when Michael’s wife worked, and also two or three evenings a week. I loved my time with Tim.’
Together, grandmother and grandson would go to the park and feed the ducks, or she’d take him to the playground.
‘We used to read together, too, and I taught him his letters and numbers up to ten,’ she says. ‘I had all the time and patience in the world for him, and I loved it when he ran towards me with his arms open.
‘I wonder if he ever thinks of me now? Perhaps he thinks I am dead.’
Today, Sally has severe arthritis and is virtually housebound. ‘I have the odd friend who comes to see me, but I cannot tell you what it would mean to see Tim walk through that door.
‘I was judged to be unimportant in his life, a throwaway relation. Only that’s not how it feels to me. The loss is terrible. He lit up my life, and I was so proud of him.’
Like so many grandparents, Sally has been judged irrelevant in the bitter court battle between husband and wife.
A lonely and impecunious pensioner, she had no money or way of fighting for access through the courts.
She says sadly: ‘I trusted Michael’s ex-wife to keep her promise to me that I would always be a part of Tim’s life. She broke that, probably to get back at Michael. Now I doubt I will see Tim again before I die.
‘I’d just like to hold him once more - and tell him how much Granny loves him.’
Some names have been changed to protect identities.