Keeping children out of the firing line
A child contact centre, operating on a pilot basis for now, has already helped 28 families since opening in October
THE MOST distressing thing for a child about their parents splitting up, according to recent research from the single-parent support organisation One Family, is not being able to see one of them as much as they would like, or sometimes, at all.
The 2009 report, Supporting Child Contact: the need for child contact centres in Ireland, was written to present the evidence for the need for centres here.
A child contact centre is, most simply, a safe, neutral space where the parent – most usually the father – who does not live with the child(ren) can spend time with them.
Last month, Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, opened the first such facility in the State. It is on a pilot basis for now although One Family and Barnardos, its joint operators, are in no doubt the case for making it permanent, and extending it across the State will be proven.
It operates in three locations in Dublin – Ballymun, Clondalkin and Tallaght – and serves parents and children within its HSE catchment areas.
While most separating couples can and do come to amicable arrangements regarding their relationships with their children, many don’t.
The fact that the number of access applications in the district courts increased from 1,694 in 2000 to 3,491 in 2008, to 4,1784 in 2010, and the number of guardianship applications by unmarried fathers increased by 170 per cent from 1,009 to 2,783 in the same period, testifies to the fact that maintaining contact with children, especially for separated fathers, is not always straightforward.
Whatever about a father’s right to a relationship with his child, international studies underline the right of a child to a relationship with their dad.
Several studies cited in the 2009 report find a father’s emotional significance to their children does not diminish even where contact is infrequent or even lost.
A recent Saturday morning visit to the Clondalkin centre found one young father with his daughter, aged about six, in the kitchen area, at a large family table, making rice krispie buns.
In the outdoor area another young father was with his two children, one of them circling the yard on a trike, the other on dad’s lap, also on a small trike. Another father was in a quiet room with a sleeping baby.
“We try to keep things as ‘normal’ and as ‘homely’ as possible,” explains Robert Dunne, Barnardos project leader at the centre. The centre is open on weekends, from about 9.15am until about 2pm, he says.
Referrals to the centre are made through the courts, mediation services or families can be self-referral.
A needs assessment is carried out on the child and a joint agreement reached by parents on the type of contact. There are regular reviews with the parents as to how things are progressing, and supports for the parents throughout.