Child contact centres are a lifeline for families and must be put on a statutory footing.
Anyone who practises in public or private children law will know that child contact centres (CCCs) are a lifeline for families. Often they are the only solution for children to maintain a relationship with a parent where concerns have been raised about that individual’s parenting capabilities. But there is little public recognition of the work of these centres, which are largely run by charitable organisations and staffed by volunteers. Reduced third-sector funding means that many of these centres are now threatened with closure just as the family law system needs them the most.
CCCs provide a vital, neutral territory where children can be gradually reintroduced to a parent after a long period of absence; where there are safeguarding concerns; or where there has been a complete breakdown of trust between adults. Their value and contribution to local communities must be recognised.
A good example was the charity-run Kings Lynn Contact Centre which was recently threatened with closure. Judges, lawyers and Cafcass officers had no alternative but to refer parents to facilities 50 miles away. The travel expenses for most parents would have been entirely prohibitive. Thankfully Peter Barker, a former family court adviser with Cafcass and member of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), stepped in and found a six-month waiting list of desperate families in need of help.
King’s Lynn Contact Centre reopened in May and has gained National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC) accreditation, with Peter having implemented a six-part training programme for 15 volunteers. Unfortunately, this centre stands out as a success story, but many others have closed. These facilities are simply not available to many families. To safeguard some of the most vulnerable children, there needs to be at least one CCC offering supervised and supported contact for every family court centre, and these centres need at least a small core of qualified, experienced paid staff. This requires a statutory framework and public funding.
As lawyers in the family justice system, we have come to accept that it may take several months for a parent to begin contact with their child at a supported contact venue. It is, however, entirely inadequate for the children and contrary to the Children Act 1989, which expressly states that delay is prejudicial.
The Children and Families Bill envisages making mediation information and assessment meetings compulsory, and the government’s express aim is to divert separating parents away from the court. This means that many parents will not have undergone the safeguarding checks that the Cafcass schedule 2 letter currently provides for, nor will they have received advice from a specialist family law solicitor by the time they reach a CCC. Instead, volunteers will have to deal with self-referrals by litigants in person and make the appropriate risk assessments which, without adequate training and supervision, they are not equipped to do.
The NACCC is working hard to develop best-practice frameworks and support services to ensure CCCs meet the needs of the children referred, but limited funding means a limited service. Irrespective of the work done by the NACCC, the centres themselves are under-resourced to implement best practice.
The NAPO Family Court Section has recently launched a national campaign: Children Need Contact Centres. The aim is to get CCCs on a statutory footing so that there is an obligation on the secretary of state to ensure there is at least one CCC for every family court centre, and to adopt mandatory minimum standards for the training, support and supervision of co-ordinators and volunteers. I urge family law practitioners to actively support NAPO’s campaign and help secure the future of the CCCs.
For further details please go to the Child Contact Centres Campaign.
Emma Hopkins is an associate at Simpson Millar