Why 75,000 Ontario grandparents don't get to see their grandkids

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Why 75,000 Ontario grandparents don't get to see their grandkids

Why 75,000 Ontario grandparents don't get to see their grandkids

Across the province, thousands of grandparents might not be seeing their grandkids over the long weekend.

Advocates say an estimated 75,000 Ontario grandparents have limited or nonexistent access to their grandchildren, thanks to anything from messy divorces to fractured relationships with their own adult children.

It's a situation Hamilton resident Cecile Callen, 70, says is "running rampant" among families.

Callen is the founder of Hamilton-Burlington Alienated Grandparents Anonymous, a recently launched support group similar to others found throughout Ontario and across North America. She's also a grandmother herself, with seven grandkids from her three adult children — but says she hasn't seen one of her son's children in five years.

"I have been alienated from my family for about 30 years," she says.

Shut out of family activities

After a tough divorce in 1986, Callen says she was shut out of family activities. She says it's led to a tense relationship with her children, and limited access to many of her grandkids.

"I have felt very depressed, angry, lost... I don't want to end my life with all these people disliking me for reasons they have not even come and spoken to me about," she says.

Callen's experience inspired her to form the AGA chapter three months ago. The group has grown from a handful of participants to the roughly 25 attendees who came out to a meeting in Burlington earlier this month.

She hopes the group provides a support network to grandparents facing alienation, and also shines a light on what she sees as a growing issue.

"It started because of the divorce rate in the '60s and the '70s, and the alienation that happened when you went through a divorce," Callen says. "The alienation can carry on into the next generation."

'It's been hell'

For the affected grandparents, every situation is different.

One Hamilton-Burlington AGA attendee, who asked for her identity to be concealed over privacy concerns stemming from her already limited access to certain grandchildren, says in her case, the reduced access was "punishment" from one of her adult children.

"'I didn't like something you said or did? You're not seeing the kids.' It's the same punishment — over and over," says the Burlington grandmother, who says she's never met one of her grandchildren.

She also spoke of the high legal fees that arise when grandparents fight for access to their grandkids, and the emotional toll of what can become a years-long court battle.

"It's been hell," she says. "We've had to prove ourselves as good people over and over and over again. We've been accused of many, many things we've never done."

Those harrowing experiences are part of why Michael Mantha, MPP for Algoma-Manitoulin, championed Bill 34, the Children's Law Reform Amendment Act, which recognizes the role of grandparents.

A provincial law since December, Mantha says it informs the courts that they must give special consideration to grandparents when granting access, given the high number who are alienated from their grandchildren.

Goal to get alienated families into mediation

"It's like living a funeral. You go home in grief every day," he says, adding the 75,000 known grandparents affected by this might only be the tip of the iceberg, given the shame and stigma around broken family relationships.

The ultimate goal of the amendment, he says, is opening up avenues for parents and grandparents to discuss things through mediation.

"The last...scenario that we want to see is for this to proceed into court," he adds. "But if it has to go, now the judges and lawyers have the ability to do something, to make a case going forward that is in the best interest of the child."

And that is the bottom line, Callen says. While grandkids keep grandparents feeling young, she stresses the benefits of a relationship go both ways — with grandparents offering an additional support network and source of knowledge.

"Grandchildren want to see their grandparents, I believe," she adds.