Over the last few years a great many of the cases we have heard of have involved supervised contact, and it seems now to be the default position of the courts in conflicted cases. This puts pressure on contact centres and on their availability for parents; many still open only every other weekend for 2 hours on either a Saturday or Sunday; many also share a venue with other associated services such as Sure Start. This situation is not sustainable given the cuts in children’s services by local authorities. This failure of judges to think ‘outside the box’ is pushing the system into overload.
Courts are increasingly ordering that contact between a father and his children should take place in a ‘Contact Centre’ rather than at home or in any other normal and relaxing environment.
Contact centres are commercial enterprises, so contact in them can be expensive, particularly when it is supervised; there is no consistency across the country and half an hour can cost anything from £15 to £200, and there will be additional charges for ‘setting up’ contact. Your children will not be allowed to see you until you pay.
Note also that the National Association of Contact Centres, which is supposed to regulate the industry, requires that there should be a period of a month between the order and the date of the first contact so that they can acquire the necessary information about parents and children. This introduces further unnecessary delay, and this is information which the court and CAFCASS should already have supplied.
Contact Centres are supposed to be independent, but they are not; most are contracted directly to CAFCASS; they get the contract by providing the lowest cost tender.
No one denies that there are situations in which children are at risk and that sessions at contact centres can play a vital role in maintaining relationships, but on the whole it appears that contact centres are being used by the Family Courts as the default position for contact between a father and his children in conflicted cases.
In Lord Justice Wall’s report Making Contact Work it was acknowledged that contact centres had ‘been seized upon by courts, lawyers and family court welfare services to accommodate their difficult contact cases’. In turn the Labour Government seized upon the report to justify an expansion of contact centres.
Contact centres are overused in more cases and for longer than is necessary, creating a severe shortage of places; you may have to wait 4 or 5 months for a place to become available; that’s on top of the 9 months you may have had to wait before getting even to this stage.
Contact centres are overused and the available resources are being exhausted; if the resident parent will not agree to unsupervised contact entirely – perhaps because you have spent very little time with your child – see if they will agree to supervision by a trusted relative or friend.
One alternative is for contact centres to offer ‘staggered’ handovers as a safer alternative to parents meeting at the local garage or park to hand over children. In staggered handovers one parent turns up at an agreed time, drops the children off at the centre and then leaves; the other parent turns up a short while later to pick up the children. This ensures that the parents don’t meet and the children don’t have to witness arguments and confrontation. In most cases this is what the courts should be ordering as the default position for contact rather than supervised contact, because staggered handovers provide the same outcome – the children and non-resident parents remain in contact with each other and the parents do not have to attempt pleasantries that often result in an argument.
In fact, parents who are going to court to sort out contact arrangements should be insisting on using contact centres for facilitating contact handovers. This ‘insurance policy’ goes a long way towards ensuring you will not be back in court 3 months later because things have broken down. It protects both parties from any potential allegations that would result in future litigation. The average cost of this service is £15 a session; this is £15 well spent compared with what it will cost you if an argument breaks out at a handover.
Of course, you do not have to use a contact centre for this service, and could have the same arrangement with a play centre, a mutual friend or another service where your children can be supervised.
The other option available to parents who wish to use external services for handover is the ‘pick-up and drop off’. This is not available at every contact centre but it is worth exploring as in some areas social services can offer this service. For those parents who do not want to risk bumping into the ex in the contact centre car park even as part of a staggered handover arrangement, the ‘pick up and drop off’ service eliminates any possibility of contact. A member of staff can come to your home, or another pre-arranged location, and pick up the children from you, and take them to the other parent’s house, or to a pre-arranged location. The cost of this service can vary but usually you have to pay a fee for the case worker plus a mileage allowance for their journey to and from the parents. This is probably the safest of all services as there is no chance of disputing parents meeting.
The problem is that once in court you are usually given a very limited choice of services because the CAFCASS officers themselves do not know what services are available. The best solution is to be prepared. Before you go to court, even if you are wanting unlimited contact, approach all the contact centres in your area and ask them for details of their services and always ask them if they would be prepared to offer services such as staggered handovers and pick-ups and drop-offs. They might not offer those services on a regular basis but explore the options with them so that once in court you are not forced into the one-size-fits-all supervised contact in a contact centre that is being dealt out because mum and dad do not like each other and cannot help slagging each other off in front of the children whenever they meet.
Use of a contact centre must be for a specific purpose and for a defined period of time. Both limitations must be set out clearly in the order. Only use a contact centre as part of a long-term strategy. Once it has served its purpose you will follow up with applications for overnight contact or shared residence.
In 2012 the BBC broadcast a documentary about a father forced to use a contact centre; it shows some of the pitfalls to be avoided. The father, Keith, decides to represent himself in court, but does not appear to seek advice from any support groups or McKenzies.
Supported contact is originally ordered because he has let down his ex’s tyres – not a child-related factor and not any justification for supported contact. The use of the contact centre is allowed to continue too long and his three daughters become resentful and reluctant.
The father is required to submit to a psychological evaluation – which he passes – but he does not insist on the mother having one, despite her obvious ‘issues’: she is profoundly insecure, has no self-confidence, had no relationship with her own father, and manipulates contact in order to exert control over a situation in which she feels powerless.
Very unwisely, the father brings his three older children to the contact centre without discussing it with the mother; she feels threatened by the obvious love they all have for each other and from which she feels excluded. She returns to court and supervised contact is ordered. As contact becomes less frequent – down to 1 hour per fortnight from 2 – and more stilted we can see the relationships disintegrating. Eventually Keith is allowed contact at home, but two of the girls choose not to see him.
The pressure Keith is placed under to prove himself a suitable parent is obviously intolerable, and the mother is allowed to manipulate the system in order to destroy his relationships with his daughters, but a competent McKenzie or lawyer could have helped him avoid some of the more obvious mistakes.