Grandparents: Anchors in Uncertain Times

Photo by Paolo Bendandi

Dr. Samantha Davey, Lecturer in Law at the University of Essex, explores family dynamics in the context of grandparents as primary caregivers.

Grandparents may live miles or even continents away from their grandchildren. Pre-existing relationships may have been affected adversely because of Coronavirus-related self-isolation. Regardless of current events, many grandparents have played, and will continue to play, a pivotal role in the lives of their grandchildren.

Grandparents’ involvement may range from helping parents via part-time childcare to providing full-time care for children, in circumstances where children cannot be raised by their parents. The circumstances in which grandparents may become full-time carers will vary. Some parents voluntarily relinquish children into the care of grandparents. In other sad cases, Social Services may become involved in children’s lives due to issues faced by parents including alcohol addiction, drug abuse or mental illness which have led to child neglect or abuse.

In such cases, provision of care by grandparents will not necessarily have been at the parents’ behest. In circumstances such as these, grandparents are of particular importance since these children would otherwise be placed in foster care. Furthermore, some children would be placed for adoption, with a permanent loss of legal ties and relationships with birth parents and other family members, including grandparents.

Where grandparents provide an alternative care option to adoption, this route is not without challenges. Potentially, grandparents face conflicts due to a moral obligation to balance the interests of their offspring with, a moral and potentially legal obligation to protect the best interests of their grandchildren.

There are cases, for instance, where it may be appropriate for children to have only supervised contact with their parents or none at all. Furthermore, grandparents may face difficulties in receiving financial support or practical support for children who may have special educational or emotional needs.

Despite the challenges faced by grandparents, the care they provide is preferable to adoption. Indeed, when grandparents look after their grandchildren, they may well protect them from further uncertainty via foster care. This option also makes it possible to avoid the long-term severance of the legal tie between children and their birth family. In effect then, grandparents can be seen not solely as care providers but as a vital link to children’s birth family.

Unfortunately, grandparents lack automatic rights which are enjoyed by parents such as party status in legal proceedings. The involvement and importance of grandparents in children’s lives is not reflected in legislation. The government has many priorities. Reforming the law in relation to grandparents is simply not one of them. But is it time to open up a discussion on this issue? Should grandparents’ involvement in children’s lives warrant acknowledgement in legislation?

For further discussion of grandparents in the context of adoption cases read: Samantha Davey, A Failure of Proportion: Non-Consensual Adoption in England and Wales (Hart Publishing 2020). This book provides a general overview of the issues faced where adoption takes place without parental consent and considers the vital role of grandparents’ provision of care as a viable alternative to adoption.

In due course a workshop on grandparents’ rights, law and social policy will be taking place at the University of Essex. The date of this is to be announced in the future due to the lockdown which is in place currently. If you are interested in producing a paper for this event, you are a grandparent affected by these issues or you have an interest in cases of adoption without parental consent please contact Dr Samantha Davey at

A version of this article was first published on the MIHE Blog.

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