Community Care shares the views of parents who have used contact centres, and hears from a parenting professional whose scheme is helping spread good practice
Sue Walker is an independent social worker and a consultant for Coram Family Child Contact Centre
Expectations now run high among magistrates and judges that contact supervision will provide valuable information to assist with planning for children’s futures.
When children are removed from home and early contact is set up, the right approach can be very beneficial for children and their parents. The information gained can reveal the ability of adults to focus on meeting the needs of their children and their capacity to respond to help and make changes. Where change cannot occur, this reveals itself in a short time. I have seen the effect that skilled and direct work with children and their parents can have. I also believe it will have a therapeutic effect on the future mental health of these children.
The purpose of contact is to promote and support relationships with family members, enhancing family cultures and a sense of identity, and giving some continuity in a period of change and uncertainty. Even if the prognosis for rehabilitation is very poor, the quality of contact sessions can be made a worthwhile experience for the child and leaves all with memories that can be helpful.
Engaging foster carers in appropriate contact builds relationships that affect commitment to the ongoing, less frequent contact after the child has been placed. The frequent, regular sessions with children and their carers provide many opportunities for contact staff to use relationships to offer relevant and purposeful intervention.
In my travels, I have seen many workers sent off to dangerous places or become involved in poor practice. They have been very frustrated at the outcomes for the child and their family, providing unfocused records that have little or no worth unless analysed over time.
One of the reasons given by staff for lack of support is the quantity of sessions that have to be covered and the belief among social work managers that, if the courts have directed contact, it has to be covered at all costs. When working in very diverse communities, unpicking families’ cultural beliefs and values about parenting is crucial to avoid misunderstandings and poor communication. This can be compounded when interpreters and signers are used, again with some instances of poor preparation.
Parents’ views on using St Joseph’s Family Centre, Warrington
“St Joseph’s is a warm, relaxed and friendly environment in which my children were able to have contact with their father after we had separated.
The staff were welcoming and helped us to get through a difficult period in our lives.
My partner and I had family mediation to help us talk properly about the children and we can now do this without strife. The support and counselling we had at St Joseph’s have helped put our relationship back together. Now we are looking forward to a future as one family.”
Carol and Dennis:*
“We have been coming to St Joseph’s since the summer of 2006. We were a normal family until our grandson came into our care two years ago. His mother is my husband’s youngest daughter from his first marriage. St Joseph’s staff are supportive, caring, trustworthy and provide a shoulder to lean on – and sometimes cry on. They did offer my stepdaughter counselling but she never turned up for it.
As a family, we always try to stick together and are very supportive to our grandson’s every need as he is only three and is a very bright child. If we did not have St Joseph’s to go to, I don’t know what we would do, as this is a last resort for him to see his mum.
Sometimes the strain of this situation we are in with his mum is hard to bear and, in the past, we have had no one to turn to. But now we have. There should be more centres like this one where you feel comfortable and know that no one is judging you. I am sure there are other grandparents out there who are in the same situation as us.”
“When it was first proposed that I make contact with my three-year-old son at St Joseph’s, I didn’t know what to expect. But I was greeted warmly. Then I was taken to one of the family rooms where I met my son. The room had of lots of toys and learning equipment for my son, and every so often the staff would come and see how I was getting on with him.
They would offer help and advice on basic parenting skills, which I still use now. The staff trust people at the centre without that I don’t think things would have run smoothly enough for contact to happen.
Where lone parents long for a relationship with their child like I did, centres like St Joseph’s are one way of doing this. I just couldn’t imagine my life now without my little boy.”
*Not their real names