Child contact centres are greatly undervalued.
Family contact centres are essential in facilitating and maintaining a link between parents and children, often in a transitional period after contact has broken down and relationships need to be rebuilt.
The centres provide a neutral and impartial location for a child to spend time with members of their family. They also provide the child with a safe and secure area for contact, which is essential if the family member may be considered a risk to the child. They are child-centred environments that put the needs of the children first. They also assist with handover, if and when this is an issue. Moreover, they are designed to be a stepping stone to a more permanent arrangement for future contact.
The sad reality is that these resources are scarce and are an undervalued and diminishing asset. They tend to be run by charitable organisations, are staffed by volunteers and are threatened because of a lack of funding. Due to the cuts in legal aid, the number of parents accessing the family courts to resolve their problems has halved. This has resulted in a significant fall in contact centre referrals.
In 2013, 15,000 children used a family contact centre, compared with only 9,000 in 2014. The National Association for Child Contact Centres says 40 centres have closed in the last 18 months across England and Wales. The pace of closures is accelerating, with the result that some regional areas do not have any contact centres. Although new centres are opening, the problem of funding remains. In some areas, it can take months for a new facility to be opened.
It is unfortunate that child contact centres have been overlooked during family law reform. The overhaul of public funding eligibility has resulted in many litigants facing the court process alone, without legal advice or support. This, in turn, slows down the entire process, further prolonging the separation between a child and parent.
Many centres operate in schools, council buildings and churches. The operation of contact centres is funded entirely out of the fees charged, donations and sponsorship. These centres receive a small contribution from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) and are staffed by 6,000 volunteers.
‘There has been no withdrawal or reduction in Cafcass funding for child contact centres,’ the former justice minister Simon Hughes said. However the lack of referrals has led to 10% of centres being closed down and many contemplating closure. Families need to be aware that they can access a contact centre without going through the legal system.
The security offered by contact centres remains in high demand and this has been recognised by the Central Family Court, formerly known as The Principal Registry. Now, within the Central Family Court, on the fourth floor, there is a brightly coloured, well-equipped contact centre.
The contact centre awaits its grand opening but is already accepting referrals made directly by judges sitting at the court.
I recently represented an anxious and apprehensive mother in private law contact proceedings. The mother, a victim of domestic abuse, recognised the importance of contact resuming between her son and his father but required the reassurance of a safe environment.
The child in question has not seen his father for over 14 months. Now, at the Central Family Court, the parents will undergo their pre-contact risk assessments, which involves the child visiting the contact centre and becoming familiar with the surroundings.
The child in my case is the first child to be safeguarded by the new contact centre. He will gradually be introduced to his father after a significant period of absence.
The contact centre’s value and contribution to the families known to the court and the community must be recognised, particularly with the cuts to family legal aid and other support services.
Candice Rochford is a solicitor at Avadis & Co in London