At the centre of broken family life

 

A report just launched highlights the urgent need for specialised child contact centres

THE DISMAL choice between going to a park on a rainy day or a local fast-food restaurant is one that many separated fathers face during a precious hour or two with their children on a Saturday afternoon.

It is a common scenario, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a relationship breakdown when one parent has moved out and access to the children is a contentious issue in an emotionally charged situation.

Offering fathers an alternative, child-friendly place to go was the idea behind the establishment of the first child contact centres in the UK. That was 25 years ago.

Now there are about 350 such centres in England alone and they have evolved to meet the increasingly complex needs of fragmented families.

Demands for their services have never been greater, according to the National Association of Child Contact Centres in the UK, and many centres have waiting lists. Lack of funding is a constant issue and they operate limited hours, from as little as one evening and one Saturday a week.

Reasons for using the centres range from a parent having no place to bring the child or having a lack of parenting skills, to cases where there has been domestic violence or there is fear of abduction.

About two-thirds of the centres in England facilitate “supported contact” and are staffed primarily by volunteers. The other third also cater for contact supervised by professionals, which has been ordered where, for instance, there are allegations of abuse against a parent.

Most clients are involved in court proceedings over access and are referred to a contact centre to enable the child to see the non-resident parent on safe and neutral territory while the couple’s differences are being sorted out.

The urgent need for specialised child contact centres here in the Republic is highlighted in research launched yesterday by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Barry Andrews, who said he hoped to be able to announce funding for a pilot contact centre very shortly.

The study, entitled Supporting Child Contact: the Need for Child Contact Centres in Ireland, not only identifies the existing need, but also predicts that the demand for these services will grow as the number of “non-traditional” families increases.

A third of births now occur outside marriage and more than one fifth of children under the age of 15 live in one-parent families.

At the same time, figures from the courts service show there were 3,491 cases relating to access in the family law courts in 2008, a doubling of the number at the start of the decade.

The study, which was funded by the Family Support Agency and conducted by One Family, estimates that up to 2,700 children in the Republic may need the services of a contact centre each year. Based on those figures and the level of provision in other countries studied, a total of 37 centres would be required.

The cost of centres would depend on the type of service provided, the study comments, and it does not estimate the funding needed. However, the approximate annual cost of €121,000 for each centre in Australia is seen as a guide, although the higher rates of pay here, along with the start-up investment needed, would undoubtedly push the funds required considerably beyond that.

The study recommends the immediate establishment of a small number of pilot contact centres here, to allow different models of services to be tried.

“They can test in what situations do you need therapeutic services and in what situations do you need just a handover, where people don’t want to see their former partner,” explains Candy Murphy, policy director with One Family and co-author with Louise Caffrey of the study.

Having seen how the services have developed in other countries, she acknowledges: “The more you get into it, it seems the more complicated it gets. People are not going to need a contact centre unless they have issues to be dealt with.”

What she likes about the Cloona Child Contact Centre in Belfast is the way it is linked into the courts, with a court officer based there to conduct mediation with the parents.

“If you provide that kind of mediation and therapeutic support, most cases can move on,” Murphy says. “An awful lot of the problem is that parents can’t communicate with each other and can’t agree on anything, and get into very stuck positions.”

Ideally, One Family would like to see contact centres set up in conjunction with changes in the family law courts, involving independent assessment of children’s needs.

“It is a bit of a chicken and egg. If we proceed with the pilots, we are hoping that people will see how these work and how effective they are,” Murphy explains.

There is plenty of research to show that when a relationship breaks down, children fare better if hostility is kept to a minimum and they are able to maintain contact with both parents.

A drop-in centre for separated parents and their children, Time 4 Us, has been operating in Galway since 2007. An evaluation of its services, conducted by the Child and Family Research Centre in NUI Galway, found that resident and non-resident parents using the centre reported that the benefits included increased happiness among children and more access between non-resident parents and their children.

Both resident and non-resident parents also said they had less conflict in their relationship since using the service. Other organisations, such as the Ballymun Men’s Resource Centre in Dublin, are providing supervised contact services, but none of this is being done in an organised, funded way, says Murphy.

Some of the lessons to be learnt from the UK experience were outlined at yesterday’s launch at Dublin Castle by Judy Birchall of the National Association of Child Contact Centres. She has been involved in running a supported contact centre for more than 20 years.

“For the first eight to 10 years of that, we would have had ‘normal’ families who had a problem about contact,” she tells The Irish Times.

“Since that time, particularly over the last four years, we don’t get those families any more. We get families who have a problem with drugs, alcohol, domestic violence and mental health, who also have a problem about contact.”

Another increasing trend they see is where parents have never lived together but have produced a child.

“You really are starting from scratch because there may never have been any particular liking between the parents, and you are trying to forge a degree of a relationship between them for the sake of the child,” she says.

When a relationship breaks down during pregnancy, it can be extremely difficult for a first-time father living elsewhere to learn how to look after a baby. But at contact centres there are people who can support him and, over time, he can prove his capability and commitment.

In England, about 90 per cent of separating families sort their differences and do not go to court. Of the 10 per cent who do, about 5 per cent end up using contact centres.

Increasing numbers of mothers going to contact centres to see their children is also a trend reported by Birchall. There are usually drug and alcohol issues in these circumstances and maybe mental health problems as well, but not always, she explains. Sometimes children do live with their father.

“You get grandparents as well – that is an increasing phenomenon – and sibling contact too, where each child is with a different parent. Or children living with step parents having contact with natural parents, or children living with natural parents having contact with step parents.

“Take any possible combination, including gay and lesbian couples, and there is a possibility that it has cropped up in a centre at some stage, she says, adding: “Family life is very complicated.”

It is adults who make it complicated – the children’s desire for love and stability is very straightforward. All the evidence suggests contact centres can help conflicted parents take a step towards meeting their children’s needs.

'OFTEN PEOPLE DO NOT FEEL STRONG ENOUGH TO DEAL WITH THEIR EX'

SINGLE PARENT ND thinks it would have been very helpful if there had been a contact centre available to her and her children during the early, raw days of relationship breakdown.

She is mother to a nine-year-old girl and six-year-old twins, with different fathers. A contact centre would be “a safe place to bring the kids and takes the pressure off you having to be there as well,” she says.

“I had times with the dads when we went through bad patches, where I couldn’t be near them,” explains ND. “I was lucky enough in that I could get family to help out, with the kids picked up by parents. But that is just getting more people involved.”

She believes children are entitled to see both parents, unless there is a risk of physical or emotional harm. However, often people do not feel emotionally strong enough to deal with their ex-partner, she points out, yet they know their children want to see the other parent.

“There can be a lot of hurt there and the trust is broken. How can you trust your precious little baby with someone that you can’t trust with yourself?

“It is a natural feeling. But having a centre where you know that everything is okay will possibly allow you to slowly, slowly build up trust for the child.”

She acknowledges that many separated dads have issues with not getting access to their children, and that if a father has not had much contact, he can be nervous about handling a small child on his own.

“I would envisage a centre like that running parenting courses, in conjunction with having safe access spaces,” she says.

She knew a woman whose partner ended up homeless after their relationship broke down and he was living in a hostel.

He would have loved to have seen the children but he had nowhere that he could bring them, so a contact centre would have been a huge help to him.

In her own case, she says: “I have moved on now and I am able to see the dads.

“We have slowly built up our own relationship over the years. We can hang around and be civil – but we do it for the kids, for no other reason.”

MEETING PLACE: SERVICES OFFERED

Child contact centres can provide three types of services:

Handovers

This enables parents to avoid meeting. One parent drops the child at the contact centre and the non-resident parent collects the child and takes him/her out of the centre for the duration of the visit.

Supported contact

Where the child and non-resident parent stay in the child-friendly centre and have the opportunity to develop and maintain a positive relationship, with minimum supervision and support.

Supervised contact

If a court has found that a child has suffered harm at the hands of the non-resident parent in the past, or believes the child may be at risk during contact, then trained professionals supervise the visit at the centre.