A Debate on the Reasons for a Drop in Child Contact Centre Referrals
Child contact centres provide a safe environment where children whose parents have separated can spend time with their non-resident parent. Concerns have been raised over the fact that referrals to these contact centres have dropped by 50% since cuts to legal aid.
Our Director of Family Services, Emma Pearmaine, joined in on a conversation as to why this could be case on BBC Radio 5 Live
yesterday, but the debate continues…
How Can Contact Centres Help?
Child contact centres help provide the valuable opportunity for children to spend quality time with non-resident parents in a secure
environment. They can offer both supervised and supported contact and can also offer assistance with handover between parents or provide a letter box service for parents to write to their children in circumstances where the child’s home address must remain confidential.
The National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC)
is the supporting membership body for these centres. Nihal Arthanayake
, hosting the BBC 5 Live discussion, noted that there are 400 centres across the UK and that the NACCC have helped foster relationships for around 2200 children in the last year. Sadly, during this time, 50 of these centres have since closed.
Why Emma Thinks Referrals Have Dropped
In Emma's view, there are a number of reasons why our Family Law Department at Simpson Millar
could be making fewer referrals to contact centres:1. Legal Aid Cuts
– Lawyers do apply positive pressure to persuade parents to use contact centres, but legal aid cuts mean that our opportunities to do so are dropping. Less people are going through the family court, which means we are having less of a chance to exert a positive influence.2. Waiting Lists
– Waiting lists can mean that parents don't want to wait for availability because of the harm it can do to children not to see a parent in the intervening period. Leeds Law Society recently carried out an exercise investigating availability of contact centres, and in the Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and Wakefield area only one contact centre did not report a waiting time for new referrals. We often look to find other means of supervising or supporting contact, such as finding neutral family members or friends of the family which both parents trust. 3. Lack of Reporting
– After referring to contact centres for supported contact, parents will often report different outcomes which leaves the court in a tricky position when deciding whether to extend or reduce contact at a later date. One parent may say it went brilliantly, with the other saying that it was dreadful and that the child was distressed! Referral to a contact centre does restart the face to face relationship between a child and parent but not all contact centres can offer reporting to the courts, and that causes problems.
A Debate over the Cost of Contact Centres
Emma also suggests that another reason why referrals may have dropped is because of the cost of visiting some of the centres. Some Contact Centres are able to operate without charging, but others have to charge to stay in operation
and many non-resident parents cannot afford the fees which can range from £50 per hour for supervised contact to £25 for a handover.
Emma's concerns over the cost of contact centres have sparked further debate with The Chief Executive of the NACCC, Elizabeth Coe.
Elizabeth felt that it should have been specified how supervised contact charges cover the cost of a qualified social worker to do court reports. In addition, most other contact centres (certainly north of Greater London) are free, and pride themselves on being so. She was also disappointed that this may lead to people feeling that this resource is not open to them.
Emma's response explains how we are trying to tackle the issue:
"We genuinely do struggle to make referrals in many parts of the country because of the fees, but in fact that is exactly why we involved ourselves in the campaign for central funding for contact centres. Contact centres are an essential resource and family lawyers will always use their best endeavours to refer."
Simpson Millar's Involvement in Making Contact Centres more Accessible
Our family law team understand the importance of extending access to child contact centres and are involved in campaigns
hoping to further this.
We are a member of the Family Court Unions Parliamentary Group
, who last year launched a contact centre campaign hoping to secure central funding and regulation for contact centres to ensure that there is a properly resourced and serviced contact centre wherever there is a family court.We were also the lead family lawyers in the recent Leeds Law Society project, in conjunction with local family judges, reviewing local resources and compiling a database of them to make referrals easier for litigants in person and local practitioners.