Page last updated at 16:38 GMT, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

'I gave up my job to look after my grandson'

By Katherine Sellgren
BBC News education and family reporter

Natalie Henningham
Natalie Henningham has raised her grandson for four years

As politicians promise more support for grandparents, one grandmother who stepped in to keep her grandson out of care, describes her experiences.

When her daughter was unable to raise her young son because of a drug addiction, Natalie Henningham was approached by social services to foster the child.

Her initial response was to say no - she had a good job in banking and her own younger daughter was only 10 at the time.

"Initially I thought there's no way, I need to get on with my life," says Natalie.

But when she visited her then three-year-old grandson in a contact centre - he was on the at-risk list, so she was not allowed to take him to her house - her maternal instincts kicked in.

"I used to leave and he'd be calling for me and I used to cry my eyes out."

It has a devastating impact on your life, psychologically it can tear you to pieces
Natalie Henningham

Three months later he was living in her home and four months after that, she was granted full guardianship by the courts.

"I had to give up my job, give up my social life, the dynamics of my family changed - it's been a real struggle," Natalie admits.

"But I'm glad I've made the sacrifice. I don't think deep within my heart I'd have been content knowing he was out there, not with his own family."

Four years on, she is in no doubt she did the right thing.

"I've given him the opportunity to remain within the family unit. I'm quite happy for him to stay with me - we have such a bond."

Financial support

To help with the costs of raising her grandson, Natalie receives a retainer fee from her local council in London, but says grandparents need more support if they have taken on parental responsibility.

"I think we should have some more financial assistance and support. If you are a grandparent and you are doing it on a voluntary basis, you shouldn't be paid.

"But if you've had to give up your job, why should you not be paid like foster carers?"

In its Families and Relationships Green Paper, published on Wednesday, the government says grandparents who take on the care of grandchildren must be "properly recognised" and get the support they need.

The paper says there are currently "unacceptable variations between local authorities in the level of support and services available to kinship carers" and there are promises to tackle this.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls says grandparents are often the "unsung heroes" when it comes to looking after children.

"They play an invaluable role for millions of families, helping to bring up children and young people... and stepping in when things go wrong."

'Bag of sweets'

Natalie, though, is dubious about the promises made by politicians.

"The government does what they need to do at that particular time and when it gets near an election, they promise the world, then you end up with a bag of sweets.

"They need to recognise that there's a hell of a lot of us in this situation.

"It has a devastating impact on your life, psychologically it can tear you to pieces - they need to recognise that."

Natalie says it should also be acknowledged that grandparents who step in to raise children are usually doing so in the context of a strained family dynamic.

"It's worse for us to have to do this because of the family circumstances - it tugs at your emotions, if you're a foster carer you don't have that.

"Not only have I lost my daughter to a substance, but I have all this too."

But despite the challenges, she remains upbeat about the future: "I've turned a bad situation into a good one."

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