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Britain's forgotten families; Exclusive: Shocking new figures reveal almost 40% of children brought up by their grandparents live below the poverty line. We talk to three heroic grans battling to cope.

Byline: Claire O'Boyle

Thousands of grandparents across Britain protect their grandchildren from neglect and abuse every year. They raise them in stable homes, saving the Government the pounds 40,000-a-year it would cost to keep each child in care.

But despite their amazing work, more than a third live below the poverty line. And others receive little or no support bringing up their vulnerable grandkids - many of whom have endured trauma or tragedy.

While social services prefer this sort of care, keeping children close to their families and saving them the disruption of moving around the care system, councils are not obliged to give grandparent carers financial support.

And a recent study found almost one in three grandparents aren't even receiving child benefit - often to avoid increasing tensions with their own offspring who usually receive that money.

"These are the country's forgotten families," says chief executive of Grandparents Plus, Sam Smethers. "The financial pressures are huge. Some grandparents delay sorting out child benefits because they don't want to provoke a fight with their son or daughter.

"Many of these carers are retired, so money is tight to begin with. And those who haven't stopped working often have to give up work or cut their hours to care for their grandchildren."

And Sam, who recently joined the Kinship Care Alliance to lobby parliament about support for family carers, says the financial burden makes the emotional strain on grandparent carers much harder to bear.

"Before the enormous financial strains even begin, we must remember the huge emotional toll on grandparent carers," she says. "Often, they will first have had to take the grandchildren from their own children so their loyalties are divided.

"They are left with a sense of guilt, but feel they have to do the right thing for their grandchildren. They are not supported adequate-ly and feel left on the margins of society.

"They do such an amazing service for us, something has to be done to make their lives, and their grandchildren's lives, easier."

FOR INFORMATION VISIT WWW.GRANDPARENTSPLUS.ORG.UK AND WWW.FRG.ORG.UK

FACTS

Around 200,000 grandparents are thought to be caring full-time for their grandchildren.

38% of families are on a net income of less than pounds 10,000 a year, which is below the poverty line.

93% of children are in their care due to abuse, neglect, parental drugs or alcohol misuse, or domestic violence.

"I've got no one to talk to"

Colleen McManus, 53, from Hucknall, Notts, that guardian. of cares full-time for her grandsons Ellis, six, and four-year-old Mason. She became their guardian two years ago when her daughter couldn't cope.

"If I could describe my life in one word it would be 'isolation'. I take Ellis to school and Mason to nursery and all the mums are young enough to be my daughters, there's nobody for me to talk to.

"My daughter and the boys' dad were both drug addicts and two years ago social services asked me to step in, or they would be adopted. I couldn't let happen, so I became their But we're on the brink poverty.

"Before I took on Ellis and Mason, I worked in a local call centre and had a pretty good standard of living. But when I brought them in, I couldn't work anymore. It wasn't practical as I needed to look after them.

"Originally I was awarded a special guardianship allowance, but the council soon reassessed my benefits and because of this money, they took it away in other ways -although I do get child benefit.

"It's stress every day. You're constantly aware of needing money. Christmas is coming, and after all they've been through I'd love to buy the boys decent presents. And Ellis can eat for England, so keeping them fed can be a struggle. I'm not asking for the world - just the money I was awarded to look after the children."

"I had this new baby thrust into my life"

Ann Tucker, 60, has been guardian to her 11-year-old granddaughter Lillian since she was just six days old. Lillian's mother suffers from mental health problems and cannot care for her daughter.

"My daughter had a severe breakdown around 16 years ago. She was in and out of psychiatric units, and after a few years she fell pregnant.

"The prospect of becoming a mother was extremely distressing for her, and most of the way through her pregnancy, she was in a psychiatric ward.

"Finally, she was able to come home when she had Lillian, but after just six days, things came to a head and she was taken away again.

"Lillian was placed on the at-risk register, and social services then asked me to become her official guardian. Of course I did this, I couldn't let Lillian be taken away.

"I worked in adult education and had to leave work for the first year, so I lost out for that time. And after two years, my husband left us and didn't give any financial support. I wasn't entitled to any maintenance from him for Lillian because she wasn't adopted, I was just her guard-ian, but I get child benefit.

"So we were completely on our own, and Lillian's mum was still suffering severely with her own problems. After a few years, a social worker told me we had been an "easy" case for them. It was so hurtful, because it felt anything but easy. It was such a traumatic time.

"I was devastated about my own daughter, and I had this new baby thrust into my life when I had expected to be winding down.

"I know so many grandparents in this situation, some in a mess financially, and I know great-grandparents who are looking after their grandchildren's children. I wish people would understand the work we do, and try not to forget us."

"We live below the poverty line"

Maddy Vaz, 61, from Liverpool, has raised her 13-year-old grandson for the past eight years.

"Like many grandparents I came to look after my grandson because he wasn't safe where he was. I was living on Incapacity Benefit of around pounds 120 a week, but in the process of becoming his guardian I lost pounds 1,000.

It might not sound like a lot, but when you're not living on much to begin with it makes a real difference. I love having him with me, but it's very difficult.

Although we get child benefit, we live below the poverty line, which is a terrible way for my grandson to start his life.

"He doesn't get to do many things young lads like to do, like bowling or going to the cinema. I'd love to take him on holiday, but I don't know how that would happen.

"Families like ours have been completely forgotten, even though we save the Government a fortune - pounds 40,000 a year - by not letting these kids go into care.

"Foster families receive much more than families like us - as they should - it's just frustrating that we've been left behind.

"I'm not asking for the world. An extra pounds 50 a week would make things easier."

CAPTION(S):

STRUGGLING: Colleen and Mason, left, and Ellis ON OUR OWN: Ann and Lillian LEFT BEHIND: Maddy
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 17, 2009
Words:1209
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