Janellen, 48, was just beginning to enjoy the freedom that comes when your children grow up when her eldest son, Adam, dropped a bombshell: he’d got a girl pregnant. Adam has Asperger’s and his then girlfriend has learning disabilities. When baby Finley was born, it became clear they couldn’t look after him. So Janellen and her husband Hugh offered to raise Finley as their own son. A year later, Adam became a father again – to twins. Janellen told Charlotte how it feels to be a grandmother left holding not one but three babies.
I’ve got three children. Adam’s the eldest. I started to realize something was different about him when he was a toddler but he wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome until he was eight. Asperger’s is a kind of high-functioning autism. You might not know anything was wrong with Adam if you met him in the street but he struggles with everyday life. He has no social awareness and he doesn’t always understand the consequences of his actions.
My first marriage broke down soon after Adam’s diagnosis and I was left raising the children pretty much alone. I didn’t ask for a lot of help; I’m an incredibly independent person. When the children were young I used to do accounting and bookkeeping work from home because that gave me some flexibility. Later I got a full-time job doing finance and personnel for a travel agency.
Adam’s Asperger’s made family life particularly hard when he was a teenager. I had two younger daughters in the house and his behaviour could be scary, inappropriate and out of control. More than once I had to involve the police. In the end I asked him to move out – partly to protect the girls but also because I knew it would be easier for Adam to find sheltered accommodation if he could prove he had nowhere else to go. I had to give him a letter officially evicting him! But I’ve never turned my back on Adam; the parenting didn’t stop when he moved out.
I met Hugh, my second husband, about twelve years ago. After Adam moved out, and as the girls gradually became more independent, Hugh and I started to make plans for how we’d enjoy our future together. We used to go for lovely long walks with our dog and we were thinking about holidays.
I was also ready to take my career up a gear. As well as working full-time I’d managed to get a BA in business studies and I was about to start studying for an MBA. I really felt like my career was about to take off.
Adam was living in a sheltered house-share with other young men who had similar problems. There was a family locally with two sisters who took an interest in these young lads. One of these girls became Adam’s girlfriend. She was a few years younger than him and she lived at home with her family. We were concerned about the situation – and then suddenly, before we’d even met her, Adam announced that she was expecting!
Social Services got involved before the baby was born. They were worried about how Adam’s girlfriend – who also has a learning disability – would cope. Finley was born on August 16th, 2011. He went home with his mum and it was agreed that a support worker would go round three times a week. But it quickly became clear that she was struggling. And we all knew that Adam wouldn’t be able to bring him up either; he can barely look after himself.
In the end it went to court and Finley’s mum voluntarily handed him over to foster carers. I was very sad for my son but it was an absolute relief that Finley was finally somewhere safe. We were having all-day contact with him every Sunday. After his first week with the foster carers, we went to collect him: it felt as if for the first time we were handed a baby! He looked and smelled beautiful. He wasn’t a poor dirty little rag-bag anymore.
Now that Adam and his girlfriend no longer had custody of Finley, he needed a permanent home. As far as Hugh and I we were concerned, if Finley needed a family, we were there for him. We both knew instinctively it was what we wanted – but this decision put us on a rollercoaster that there was no getting off.
We had to be assessed as temporary foster carers. I’d had no idea that as grandparents you have no rights whatsoever over your grandchildren. The checks we went through felt intrusive. We had medicals and criminal record checks and they came to inspect our house. We felt as if we were on trial. Anyway, we got through it eventually and they decided we were suitable carers. Finley was one when he was finally placed with us.
Although it’s not that unusual for grandparents or other kinship carers to do what we’re doing, there are very few protections for us in the law. If you adopt you’re entitled to a year’s adoption leave but we didn’t qualify for anything like that and I was only able to scrape together four weeks of paid and unpaid leave to be at home with Finley when he came to us. My employers were very understanding but I do wish I’d had more time to bond with him. He still has anxieties sometimes – if I’m going out he thinks I’m not going back and he won’t stay anywhere else overnight.
Then, as we were going through the court process, we then found out that Finley’s mum was expecting again! By the time she announced she was pregnant she and Adam had split up and she had a new boyfriend. She said he was the father, but Adam was convinced the baby was his. We told the local authority that we’d take the baby – whether it was Adam’s or not. It would need a home and, even if it wasn’t Adam’s, it would be Finley’s half-sibling. So, amid all the uncertainty, we started the process of being assessed by the local authority again – apparently it wasn’t enough that we’d recently been found to be suitable to parent Finley.
Some weeks into her second pregnancy Finley’s mum announced that this time it was twins! The babies, Lily and Chloe, were born five weeks early. At five days old they were put into foster care. We first met the twins when they were a month old and they were having their DNA testing. The minute I cuddled them, I looked at them and at my son and I knew they were his. I said to Adam: “You’re right sweetheart”.
The DNA results confirmed that Adam was the father – but still we didn’t know if we’d be allowed to have them. I’d been having supervised contact with the girls in a contact centre twice a week. That really got to me. I felt like the authorities didn’t trust me to be alone with them. My contact days with the babies were hard. My head was saying ‘don’t get too close in case they get adopted and you never see them again’. Meanwhile my heart was melting. The social worker who was observing all this ended up writing in her report: ‘Janellen was quite distant with the twins’. But how else could I have behaved? It was a coping mechanism!
The social worker’s report about us was damning. It said we wouldn’t be able to cope with twins. It was soul-destroying to be judged as an unfit parent. Six months earlier they’d judged me fit. If they thought I now wasn’t fit to have the twins, I started to question whether I was fit to look after Finley. And what about my own children?
Hugh and I decided to spend our savings on expensive lawyers to fight the local authority. They picked up all the inconsistencies in their report. The first court hearing was chaotic. The judge was very critical of the social worker. I was in tears – I had no idea if we were going to be allowed to keep the twins or not. We had to wait another ten days for a second hearing – and that’s when the judge awarded us a Special Guardianship order (meaning that we’re responsible for their day to day upbringing indefinitely) and – within ten days – the twins finally came home with us.
Adam is still a part of our lives and the children’s lives. They know who he is. He makes an effort with them but the Asperger’s does often get in the way. He gets distracted easily. At the moment he can’t have unsupervised contact with them. He wants to be a daddy to them but he just can’t manage it.
I went through a period of grieving for the empty nest I’d been expecting. It was almost within reach and then it was gone overnight. We still had a teenage daughter living at home when Finley arrived so I’ve never had a break from parenting. We can’t just go out and walk the dog when we feel like it. We won’t get that back until my husband’s in his mid-sixties. Hopefully we’ll both still be healthy by then. This grieving period, and the social worker’s report about me, brought my confidence to an all-time low. I didn’t get my hair cut for nearly two years. I remember sitting by my bed in a darkened corner crying my eyes out – reduced to a heap on the floor sobbing. But then I thought: ‘This is no good for anybody. I can’t just turn into pulp.’
I don’t think my career will ever be quite what I’d thought it was going to be. My husband’s very disappointed for me. He knows the work I put in to get my degree. But I feel relieved; I don’t have to compete in that world. Now I’m doing something different but actually far more important.
We’ve done our grieving. We know we won’t get the future we’d imagined back so we’re embracing what we’ve got now instead. We’re trying to do all the things we wanted to do but to include the kids. We can still have holidays; they’ll just be different holidays. There are so many positives to our situation. I’m lucky; I get to do it all over again. The children amaze and astound me every day. They get me up in the morning and they keep me going. You can’t be bored around them.
Grandparents Plus has been a huge support. I know they’re there in the background. They organized a day out for kinship carers to meet up and talk to other people in the same situation. That helped me to feel that I’m not alone. They’ve really helped me gain my confidence back. If I had any problems I would turn to Grandparents Plus before I went to Social Services. I’m quite scared of them now.
Now I run a local support group for people in a similar position. Grandparents Plus helped us to set that up. It’s called Kinfest – we’re trying to reduce the isolation felt by kinship carers and the children they care for. We run days out and events and a Christmas meal. I do admin, treasury and finance work for that so that gives me a chance to use my professional skills a bit.
It’s very strange the second time round. I do find myself making comparisons. I think I’m more laid back than I was with my own children – and not as influenced by competitive parents. I still put guilt trips on myself though. And I wonder how they will feel when they’re older.
When Finley was a baby I’d catch people giving me a sideways glance. They were thinking ‘is she mum or nanna?’ I always felt I had to explain. I hope the children stay happy and I hope they don’t think we did the wrong thing. Some people have accused me of stealing the children from their parents; they’ve accused me of being selfish – only doing this because I wanted them for myself. I just wanted them to stay within the family and to have a wider family who loves them. Whether it was selfish or selfless I don’t know.
Grandparents Plus is the national charity (England and Wales) which champions the vital role of grandparents and the wider family in children’s lives – especially when they take on the caring role in difficult family circumstances. Please visit www.grandparentsplus.org.uk or call 0208 981 8001 for more information about their work or to make a donation.