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Happy Valley – where would we be without grandparents?

Ryan eventually told his grandma how he felt:



“I love you.”

“What’s brought that on?”



Two people struggling with feelings.

Catherine Cawood, the Police Sergeant played to deadpan perfection by Sarah Lancashire in the hit series Happy Valley. She was a grandparent carer – also known as a kinship carer. Ryan’s dad was the notorious Tommy Lee Royce, in prison for rape and murder. His mother as a teenager had killed herself because she couldn’t live with what Tommy Lee Royce had done to her.

So, with neither parent in a position to care for him – who would look after Ryan? No other family member was prepared to care for Ryan– he was a reminder of the tragedy that had befallen his mother. But Grandma Catherine stepped in.

Eventually Ryan grasps that his grandma has always been there for him when no-one else wanted him. That’s when the pitch-perfect dialogue between Ryan and Catherine about how he feels, takes place. It’s a conversation that says far more than the words themselves.

Ryan grows up to be a fine, thoughtful young man. Even Tommy recognises the care his son has received – and this eventually stops him torching Catherine’s home. Grandparents are called on to steady the ship, perhaps even put their own grieving on hold for the sake of their grandchildren. This can damage them emotionally – but they have to be there for the children. And like Ryan, many such grandchildren thrive in their grandparents’ care.

But it can be hard. I have represented grandparents when one parent has been responsible for the death of the parent. These cases now have to be dealt with in the High Court because of the very special issues. Parents grieving over the loss in tragic circumstances of their own child suddenly thrust into the role of parenthood again as they take on their grandchildren.

The series highlighted the critical role grandparent carers play. The series climaxed, not simply with reconciliation within the Cawood family. There was a sub-plot. The mother of two young girls was brutally murdered. Their father, a teacher, was found to have been storing inappropriate sexual images of his students on his computer. He was in custody facing a significant prison sentence.

“But who will care for the girls?” asks Catherine. “The grandparents” was the reply. The camera panned to Catherine’s face. She saw that Grandparents again were called to step into the breach with no training and plenty of challenges to face. Their lives would never be the same again.

In our work with grandparent and kinship carers we repeatedly hear about grandparents taking on the role of carers in tragic circumstances.  Specialist assessment of the children may be needed for children even when the parents’ story is less gruesome. Telling a child that their mum or dad put drink or drugs before their needs is hard. These specialists can be hard to find.

The children of the murdered mother had been there when their father had attacked their mum. Few grandparents have been trained to handle these issues. CAMHS are often not in a position to help.

At the heart of the final series of Happy Valley was the fact that Ryan had clandestinely been seeing his dad in prison. It tore the family apart. Apparently, Sally Wainwright waited to write the final series until she felt Ryan was of an age to make his own mind up about his dad. He didn’t want to rely on what his grandma had told him. So he got his aunt and uncle to take him – to Catherine’s horror. Handling issues of contact can be a massive problem for kinship carers. They are likely to know some if not all of the reasons that they have become their grandchild’s carer. If the court orders contact, they have to comply. But that doesn’t always sit easily with the grandparents, particularly if they are asked to supervise such contact.

A sense of identity together with a powerful desire to make up his own mind drove Ryan on to see his dad – and therefore make him lie to his grandma. It left her with a deep sense of betrayal. Tensions in the family about the fact that she took on Ryan’s care boiled up. Catherine needs her sister’s help to care for Ryan but they have different views as to what is in his best interests regarding contact with Tommy. Grandparents often need the support of friends and family to care but they can fall out over what is the right way to parent. Reconciliation eventually happened.

Happy Valley was a brilliant series which has now ended. It was an unmissable story.

But our work hasn’t finished. We will continue to be contacted by grandparents needing support when they suddenly find themselves as carers.

Nigel Priestley

Nigel Priestley – Senior Partner




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