Contact centres provide a number of services to enable children to see a non-resident parent or other family member.
There are three main services which a contact centre provide:
Some contact centres only offer supported contact, while others will have the resources and staff to provide supervised contact. You should check with the centre what services are provided, as well as availability.
Costs vary considerably, ranging from free local services funded by the local authority, to privately run and independent centres where the cost for a session can be up to £150 (in our experience) depending on the nature of services required.
You could contact your local council´s Children´s Services department, or alternatively the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC).
The length of time sessions last will normally be set out in a court order or suggested by CAFCASS, and may also depend on the availability of local services. In some areas, there is a shortage of places.
This is an impossible question to answer, and is dependent on circumstances including reports, decisions of the court, the length of time between court hearings, the specifics of your case and the reasons why contact is supported or supervised. Once a referral has been made to the contact centre, they should normally contact you.
Referrals are normally made by CAFCASS, a solicitor, by social services (if involved with your case) or by court order. Some centres may accept a self‐referral.
If you are a litigant‐in‐person (you do not have a solicitor) you should ask at the hearing where contact in a centre is ordered, who is responsible for making the referral.
If you are anxious about the first session, once contacted by the centre, ask if you can come along before you meet your child to see what the place is like and to meet the staff. Do not just turn up, but ask if there would be a date and time that is convenient with the centre. Remember that centre staff are there to help parents and children to remain in contact, and seeing your children in a centre was not their decision.
It is natural to feel some stress in a new situation, but bear in mind that the more relaxed you are, the more comfortable your child is likely to be, and the more likely contact will go well.
Contact centres which provide supported contact services provide a venue and facilities where parents and sometimes other family members and children can meet. Venues are child friendly and include toys and games. Several families may be in a room together.
The purpose of supported contact is to help children maintain their relationships.It may be that a child has not seen family members for some time, and supported contact may be a beneficial way as way for the children and their non-resident parent or other family members to re-establish a relationship. With very young children, the court may feel benefit from there being other adults on hand to offer assistance should there be need. In such circumstances, the use of a contact centre is likely to be a stage in establishing unsupported contact.
Sometimes, support contact via a contact centre may be used because a resident parent or primary carer is particularly anxious (although not necessarily justifiably so) in the parenting ability of the non‐resident parent.
The non‐resident parent may see supported contact as an infingement on their freedom and criticism regarding their parenting ability. In reality, supported contact may help their case for unsupported contact, in confirming that their relationship with their child is positive, and more so, that they are a capable parent. It is important to remember that supported contact is recommended by the Court and/or CAFCASS when there are no significant concerns about safety.
There are other occasions when the non‐resident parent themself suggests supported contact. This may be because:
While supported contact sessions are not monitored, if there were any significant concerns about risk, staff should report this.
Centres are staffed, sometimes by volunteers. Staff are not there to monitor what happens, but may offer assistance if required.
Sometimes, the court will direct that supported contact take place at the home of a family member, and this might be explored as an alternative.
Supervised contact involves contact sessions between a non‐resident parent and/or other family members and their child which are:
Unlike supported contact, what transpires during contact sessions may be reported back to the court, and form part of the evidence for future court hearings.
The court may order that contact be supervised where the child has previously suffered harm and/or if there is concern that the child may be at a risk of harm during contact. This may be due to allegations during court proceedings, where the court is not yet in a position to determine whether or not the allegations are justified. In such circumstances, the court may order supervised contact as a precaution and to ensure that the relationship between the parent and child continues while allegations are investigated and prior to a finding of fact hearing concerning the allegations.
While supervised evidence may be ordered as a part of investigations into allegations, it should not be ordered without there beind evidence to support a possible need (albeit there may not yet be the opportunity to challenge that evidence in the courts, or the necessary investigations made to make such a challenge successful). It is worth noting two judgments which concerned decisions on supervised contact:
´A decision to require supervision of contact must be supported by evidence.´
´On the facts of this case it is clear to me that supervised contact would only have been appropriate if there was the clearest and most compelling evidence that in some way S's best interests would be jeopardised by unsupervised, normal contact. Given the terms of the Strasbourg jurisprudence to which I have referred, it is almost as if there is a presumption in favour of normal contact and it is for those who say it is inappropriate to prove by clear evidence why this is so.´
By Strasbourg jurisprudence, Mostyn J refers to the European Convention on Human Rights, and specifically, the right to family life. He goes on to say:
´If one were to draw up a hierarchy of human rights protected by the Convention I would have thought that very near to the top would be the right of a child, while he or she is growing up, to have a meaningful participation by both of his parents in his upbringing. Although this is (strangely) not explicitly spelt out in the text it must be implicit in the notion of the right to a family life.´
If the court is considering supervised contact, or supervised contact is being called for by the other party or their legal team, you should consider drawing court´s attention to the above two cases, and suggest to the court that supervised contact is not appropriate is there is no evidence to suggest a need.
Where allegations are groundless and the non‐resident parent has not had the opportunity to prove this yet, it is important to consider the following:
In 2008, the Chief Executive of the National Youth Advocacy Service (a provider of supervised contact) gave a talk at a charity conference, and noted that 75% of supervised contact sessions led to unsupervised contact.
In simple terms, see them as an opportunity, embrace the process, be courteous with the staff and you are more likely to help your case. It is important to consider though that while a non‐resident parent may feel uncomfortable about having their time with their child monitored, where there are unproven and malicious allegations, the outcome of monitoring may assist in countering the allegations.
While having supervised contact, do not discuss your case or the allegations. If you see your ex‐partner at the contact centre, be courteous. Focus on the time with your child.
Sometimes the court orders supported or supervised contact due to concerns raised by an overly anxious resident parent. That is not to say that any allegations which are made are real, but they may be perceived by the resident parent as real due to their own anxiety and the court may order contact in a centre as a precautionary measure. In such cases, and partcularly where the resident parent makes allegations concerning parenting capability, we recommend the non‐resident parent considers the following course of action:
If you suspect that the resident parent may raise allegations concerning your capability as a parent, we recommend you consider the above course of action for the following reasons:
Your motivation is not to prove the resident parent is a liar, but to recognise that they have anxieties, and to respect their feelings, even if you consider any allegations to be (and if they are) groundless.
Links to the organisations mentioned in this section are provided below:
Sometimes supervised contact is ordered for justifiable reasons. These may include, but are not limited to a history of:
Where there are genuine reasons for allegations, the accused will achieve little by denying the problems. More than this, contact may be restricted or stopped where the parent refuses to acknowledge their actions, or take responsibility for them.
We see cases where contact problems have been resolved by the accused parent accepting the problems, and suggest that the following courses of action may help establish or maintain their relationship with their children, dependent on the nature of the allegation:
Where contact has stopped completely, it is sometimes possible to re‐establish contact after having addressed the problems which led to contact being stopped. If you can prove that circumstances have changed and risks have diminished or been removed entirely, it is worth considering re‐applying to the court.
It may be that the court finds you guilty even when you are innocent. The court can sometimes be overly cautious, and considers allegations on ´a balance of probability´ (e.g. more likely than not) rather than the test in criminal cases where an allegation must be proven ´beyond all reasonable doubt´.
The court considers the parents´ demeanour in court as part of evidence. So too may CAFCASS Officers and other professionals, and it is important to bear this in mind. This can make appeal problematic, if not impossible, as the appeal court does not see what the judge at first instance saw, which makes such findings difficult, if not impossible to challenge.
The hard decision for parents in these circumstances is one whereby they argue their innocence after the court has decided that the alleged events did happen, or swallow their pride and accept the court´s decision, and then go on to prove to the court that the risks no longer exist (rather than fighting the lost point that they never existed).
Sadly, a casualty of pride and protesting innocence can be a child not seeing their parent due to the court perceiving that the parent´s refusal to accept the court´s finding is a refusal to accept responsibility for their actions, meaning that the perceived risks continue to exist.
In such circumstances, and while a bitter pill to swallow, the non‐resident parent should consider whether accepting the court´s finding is a price worth paying for the chance of re‐establishing their relationship with their child.
Some contact centres may be used as handover locations. This may be suitable where:
Referrals are usually made by the court, CAFCASS or social services, however some contact centres will accept a self referral.
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Michael Robinson © 2014
Family law information for parents whose children are resident in England and Wales
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