A revised protocol for referrals of families by the court to child contact centres has recently been published. This protocol has been implemented to clarify the procedures that should be followed when the court makes such a referral. The protocol further assists families using supported contact centres by providing much more information as to what they can expect from these centres.
Supported contact centres are a valuable resource to courts dealing with disputes about arrangements for children. These centres provide a safe space for children to meet the parents that they do not live with or other significant adults in their lives. However, before contact can proceed at such a centre, parents and children are required to attend an intake meeting whereby the parents will be seen separately so that the centre can undertake a risk assessment.
Supported contact centres are considered suitable for families where no safeguarding risks have been identified to the child or to those around them, but where some further support or guidance is needed for contact. The benefits of such a centre include staff and volunteers who can provide practical assistance and temporary arrangements for families to build their trust in each other and, hopefully, to encourage them to move on to making their own arrangements outside of the centre. It is important to note however that apart from confirmation of attendance dates and times, no reports can be made for any referrer, and volunteers cannot be called as witnesses other than in criminal cases.
The court will always carefully consider whether a supervised contact centre may be more appropriate, and these two types of supervision must be distinguished. For example, if a case has involved domestic violence then a supervised contact centre may be more suitable for that family. In terms of the referral itself, the court will also need to direct that a copy of the child arrangements order is made available to the supported contact centre, as well as any relevant safeguarding concerns or information about the family. Parties should also be made aware by the court that their acceptance at such a centre is subject to a satisfactory introductory.
When parties agree to contact taking place at a supported contact centre, it is important that they understand the following:
• Before making a referral to a supported contact centre, the court will require confirmation that it is an accredited centre.
• Supported contact centres can only offer supported contact – this is different to closely supervised contact where there is typically 1:1 supervision support, and where notes are taken.
• Contact centre staff cannot be called as witnesses.
• Such centres do not provide interpreters.
• An order has to clearly include whether any other family members or significant adults can attend the contact visit.
• An order has to clearly specify whether a child can be taken outside of the contact centre during their visit.
• If appropriate, the court has to provide within the order an exit plan for moving contact out of the centre and into the community.
The court also needs to make the following clear to the parties:
• They will need to agree which party will explain to the child when and where they will have contact with the party that they do not live with.
• Which parent will be responsible for informing the centre when contact is no longer required there.
• There needs to be an agreement about whether the parent having contact in the contact centre can take photographs of the child.
• That a review will take place every three months where it will be considered whether contact can be transferred into the community.
• In circumstances where contact has taken place at such a centre for six months and the parties have been unable to move contact back into the community, parties will be encouraged to apply back to the court for a further order.
The revised protocol is a valuable source for not only Judges and Magistrates, but for parties who are seeking contact too as it outlines the procedure to be followed by the courts and what each party should expect. It therefore takes away the uncertainty in what is often a difficult situation for the parties.