The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted lives across the nation in a myriad of ways. For many, a silver lining of repetitive lockdowns is more family time. However, for most non resident parents, lockdowns take away opportunities for precious time with their children. This is especially true for those who rely on services provided by child contact centres. Sadly, due to current Government guidelines, most of these services have had to close their doors again.
What is a Child Contact Centre?
A child contact centre is a safe and neutral space that facilitates various types of contact between a parent or a grandparent, who does not live with a child. They can be particularly helpful in situations such as those where you find communicating with your ex-partner difficult or if you fear interacting alone with them. At a contact centre, the staff’s primary focus is on the child’s wellbeing and their safety.
When operating under normal circumstances, there are three main types of services offered:
- Handover Contact: this can be helpful for those families where the non-resident parent’s court order allows them a longer period of contact. Staff will arrange for you to arrive at the contact centre at a different time from your ex partner. This means that the likelihood of you crossing paths with them outside the centre is reduced. When you arrive, staff will guide you to a separate room from your ex-partner and then arrange for your child to be safely passed over. The non-resident parent and your child are then able to leave the centre and return when their contact hours are over. The same process will occur to pass the child back to the resident parent.
- Supported Contact: this is when contact time with a non-resident parent is spent within the centre. The non-resident parent and their child are free to play games, have lunch, watch a movie and just generally spend time together as they wish. Although their contact is not supervised, being within the centre gives both the non-resident parent and the child, reassurance that there is always someone about to offer assistance if need be. This can be particularly useful in those situations where your child has not been in contact with their non resident parent for some time.
- Supervised Contact: for this type of contact the non-resident parent and the child will not be left alone at any point. A member of staff will be in the room at all times. However, staff will only get involved if they see a parent struggling or if a child becomes upset. They are there to ensure that a child is always safe and happy and they recognise that it is important for a non resident parent to interact with their child in their own way.
With centres now closed, some parents are able to adapt and can use a third party, such as a grandparent or a good friend, to help facilitate contact time between the child and the non resident parent. Others have joined the world of video calling and rely on regular Zoom calls to build and maintain relationships with their children. For some, contact has completely stopped. Some parents have no choice because for them losing the safety of the contact centre means increasing their exposure to potentially dangerous situations. However, there are others who are using the pandemic as an excuse to stop contact with non-resident parents.
The long-term affects of losing contact, even just for a couple of months, can be significant. Many may find that their time apart makes rebuilding an already fragile relationship, almost impossible and some relationships may not recover. With that in mind, it is essential that we continue to try and support maintaining contact in any way we can, while also prioritising the safety and wellbeing of both the child and parents. Although some centres are still facilitating handover contact, other forms of supported contact have had to move online. Currently there are two main online services on offer:
- Digital Message Box - in essence this is a modern day letter. The resident parent and child will either make a video or compose a text message, which is then sent to the contact centre. A staff member will review the video/text to ensure it is appropriate and safe before sending to the non-resident parent for them to view and reply to.
- Zoom Supervised Contact - this is video calling facilitated and supervised by the child contact centre. A video link is set up by staff prior to the arranged contact time. Two members of staff are present at all times during the session. Before contact begins, staff will carry out similar checks with both parents as they would do prior to normal face to face services. This ensures everyone's safety is maintained. Some contact arrangements involve young children who are not able to participate on a video call without the help of their resident parent. In these scenarios, staff will thoroughly review the family history before deciding whether video conferencing is an option or if a digital message is more appropriate.
It is important to note that even though contact staff members are not physically present, they maintain control in online services. For example, if a parent is not abiding by the contact centre’s policies, staff can remove the parent into a breakout room in order to remind them of the policies. If a parent continues to not cooperate, staff members can end the session completely. Again this ensures that the child’s safety is never compromised.
If possible, it is important that a child maintains contact with their non-resident parent throughout the pandemic. If you find you could benefit from using a child contact centre to safely arrange contact between you and your child or between your child and a non-resident parent then get in touch with Thorntons for specialist legal advice and support.
Sandra Sutherland is a specialist Family Law Solicitor. If you require family law advice please contact Sandra on 03330 430150, email email@example.com or alternatively contact any member of our Family Law team.