Contact centres play a crucial role in assisting families with re-establishing contact in often acrimonious disputes over contact. However there is often a misconception that this contact is supervised by the Centre, and co-ordinated and managed by social services or the court. This is not the case at Supported child contact centres.
Supported child contact centres offer a neutral place where children of separated parents can enjoy contact with their non-resident parents, and sometimes other family members, in a relaxing, safe environment. Almost all supported contact centres are voluntary services reliant upon the good will of volunteers, who give up there Saturdays.
Research has been carried out by the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC) that indicated how highly the neutrality of a supported centre is valued. It shows a year on year increase in demand for supported contact and in the past ten years referrals have almost doubled. As soon as the referred families realise that the centres are not run by social services or the court and that the staff are volunteers who will not be preparing reports for the court, then the likelihood of success increases.
In acknowledging neutrality is a key to this success, a revised protocol has been set up for Supported Contact Centres. The role of the Supported Contact Centres within the family justice system has been recognised and supported by Sir Nicholas Wall President of the family Division and patron of NACCC. He has stated:
“Supported child contact centres are integral to the better working of the wider family justice system, offering a most valuable resource to courts dealing with difficult and often acrimonious family disputes over contact. They also provide safe, comfortable and pleasant surroundings for children meeting the non-resident parents.
It is crucial that supported child contact centres are used appropriately. This means that the safety of the children being referred, the other families using the centre as well as the staff and volunteers must be considered before an order is made. Supported child contact centres offer a voluntary service and must be able to decide whether to accept or refuse a referral.
Furthermore courts recognise that supported contact centres are charities and nearly all staff are volunteers. They can only undertake their work if free of any risk of being drawn into individual cases or disputes. Accordingly courts and parties will not require seeking their involvement in resolving disputes, writing reports, noting events or attending, in any capacity, any family court hearing.
This admirable protocol will be of the greatest help to judges and magistrates to ensure that supported child contact centres are used to their best advantage for children needing this valuable and scarce resource.”
Under the revised protocol for supported child contact centres, families can anticipate the following:
- Staff and volunteers are available to offer practical assistance and keeping a watchful eye (for example calming a tearful child). They do not monitor or assess individual contact/conversations
- Other families are usually together in one or a number of rooms
- Families are encouraged to develop a mutual trust and consider more satisfactory family venues for long term contact
- Apart from confirmation of attendance dates and times, no report will be made to the referrer, CAFCASS, a party’s solicitor or the Court
- The staff and volunteers are not available to be called as witnesses unless it is a criminal matter
- It is a temporary arrangement to be reviewed after an agreed period of time
It must be born in mind that there may be times when it is not appropriate for a referral to be made to a supported contact centre, such as domestic violence, substantial drug and alcohol misuse, or mental illness. Also the proposed contact centre has to be an accredited member of NACCC.
If you need advice regarding a referral to a supported contact centre, or if you are being prevented from seeing your children, following a dispute with an ex partner, then specialist legal advice is essential. We at Stephensons can provide you with specialist advice in respect of family disputes and are able to advise you in respect of all the options available to you following the breakdown of your relationship. If you require any assistance please contact our specialist team on 01942 774124.
By family solicitor, Lynda Flynn