Taking the kids to the park, feeding the ducks and playing with toy trains. Graham Leach adored being a granddad. But he never expected to have to raise his two young grandsons – both with additional needs – all by himself.
It was 10 years ago when Graham, a divorcee, received the phone call that would dramatically change his life. The pensioner knew his daughter had used drugs, but nothing prepared him for what he was about to hear.
‘It was my daughter Cheryl on the phone,’ explains Graham, 63, a former warehouse operations manager. ‘She said “social services are here and they are going to take the children away”.’
Graham told his daughter to put them on the phone. ‘They said I needed to come and pick the boys up right away or they’d be taken into care. It was such a shock.’
Graham had no idea social services were involved with his daughter, let alone the extent of her drug addiction. They told him his two grandsons Tommy, then five, and Rocco, then 18 months, would end up in foster care if he did not intervene.
‘I immediately said “No way,” I did not want them going into the system,’ says Graham. ‘But I had no idea how I would cope.’
Several hours later, Graham found himself returning to his modest home, in Blackburn, Lancashire, with all the boys’ worldly possessions stuffed into a carrier bag.
‘The whole process had to be so quick, all I could get was a few clothes and cuddly toys,’ says Graham.
Within hours, and feeling woefully underprepared, Graham had become the main carer of two bewildered youngsters.
‘I had a lovely bond with the boys as I was used to looking after them at weekends, but it was very different suddenly having full responsibility for them. I loved them but was quite at sea. I’d been so naive about my daughter Cheryl’s drug issues, but I had to focus on the boys.’
In the 1980s Graham separated from his wife of 13 years, and consequently won custody of their three children Cheryl, then 12, and sons Carl, 10, and Martin, eight.
Cheryl took the break-up particularly hard and ultimately chose to live with her mother. But she later fell in with the wrong crowd, became involved in an abusive relationship, and turned to drugs.
‘My relationship with Cheryl has been up and down over the years. When Tommy and Rocco came along I looked after them at weekends, taking them fishing or swimming to help her out. But I handed them back to their mum after weekends and got on with my work.’
Initially, life was about surviving, and as well as supplies like nappies and wipes for Rocco, Graham stocked up on the kids’ favourite comfort foods like pizza, and tried to make them feel as secure as possible with cosy evenings watching Thomas The Tank Engine and drinking hot chocolate.
(Image: Andy Stenning)
Tommy was at school and Rocco had nursery, but because of the boys’ struggles with attachment issues, Graham was unable to work.
‘Life was very different, they needed my full attention,’ explains Graham. ‘The youngest was a bit behind in everything so when it came to things like potty training, it was horrendous. Both lads have special educational needs, and learning behaviour difficulties.
Rocco has ADHD and Tommy would cry a lot, being a little bit older he had seen more – like a little sponge he had soaked up the problems, and was frightened of being left alone, or of being taken away.’
Learning as he went along, Graham – who describes himself as a ‘practical person, with lots of patience’ – was truly thrown in at the deep end of parenting.
‘There were many, many public meltdowns. People stared and just thought the boys were having a tantrum. I got used to that, because they don’t look like they have any disabilities on the outside, members of the public weren’t always sympathetic to the issues the boys were dealing with.
‘I bought a puppet which looked a bit like an emu on a string, and I used that to cheer Tommy up and distract him when we were out and about. Just being a silly Granddad seemed to help.
‘And I kept their favourite DVDs in the car, and played music, which we all enjoyed. Every outing involved a lot of planning. I used to like playing the drums, but there’s not much time for that these days.’
Graham assumed that once he had agreed to take on the children, he would be supported by social services in the same way a foster family might receive help. But he was dismayed to discover that ‘kinship carers’ like him – relatives who take on the care of vulnerable children – have no rights in law and get no automatic financial allowances.
After grafting all his life, Graham was forced to use what little he had saved up to put food on the table and clothe the boys.
Feeling frustrated by the lack of government support, Graham discovered online charity Grandparents Plus, which steered him towards places where he could seek legal and financial advice – as well as put him in touch with others in similar situations for some much-needed emotional support.
‘I don’t have any family locally, so being able to talk to others who understood my situation made me feel less alone,’ says Graham, who was so encouraged he set up his own support group, East Lancs Kinship Carers Association for kinship carers in the North West.
He is also backing the idea of a new law to ensure kinship carers get the help they need.
As Tommy and Rocco got bigger – they are now 15 and 12 – they needed their own space, so Graham was forced to take £40,000 out of his hard-earned pension to fund an extension to his home.
‘Both boys were sharing a box room, and frequently falling out, so I had another bedroom built and we had fun decorating it.
‘Now Tommy has a red room, with Marvel posters up, and he likes skateboards, while Rocco’s room has a wall of spray paint graffiti style in green with his games and an Xbox.’
Graham’s daughter, Cheryl, tells him she is grateful to him and has sporadic contact with her sons – they still call her Mum but are wary of her, as is Graham because, although she is in recovery, she still has relapses.
As the boys got older, Graham filled them in gradually about the circumstances that lead to Tommy and Rocco being taken into his care. ‘Sometimes I’d have to say, “Mummy is poorly this week,” and they would accept that.
‘It hasn’t been a bed of roses, it’s been tough. There have been so many difficulties around educational issues, I’ve had to fight so hard to get them the support they need. I’m still fighting 10 years on.
Tommy has a sleeping disorder and attachment issues. Rocco’s ADHD struggles mean school can be hard,’ says Graham. ‘I can be quite strict with them because I don’t want them going off the rails.
‘We have fall-outs like any other family. But my relationship with them is mainly very good. When Rocco comes to me and says, “Granddad, I love you for what you have done for us” it makes my heart melt.
‘These boys deserve the best possible help I can give them so one day they become good men. That’s what I want for them.’
Rise of the kinship carers
Graham is one of thousands of ‘kinship carers’ the government has dubbed the ‘unsung heroes’ – those who step in to look after the vulnerable children of relatives.
Their numbers are on the rise with an estimated 200,000 children in the UK living with relatives, half of whom are grandparents.
Unlike adoptive and foster parents, kinship carers have no rights in law and get no financial allowances, so often end up in debt. Many feel they have no choice as in three quarters of cases, the children would be taken into care if they didn’t step in.
Research has shown that children do better with family members they know and trust.
– The charity Grandparents Plus is calling for a new law to ensure kinship carers get the help they need. For more information click here