Laurence Greatorex and Julie King are sharing anecdotes about their son, Alex, during lunch. A few years ago, talking civilly - let alone laughing together - wouldn't have been possible.
In hindsight, it was a classic case of a spiralling breakdown in communication and financial worries that led to the disintegration of their marriage. On top of this, they were struggling to cope with Alex's behavioural problems he has since been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Together for five years, they had been married for just eight months when they separated.
Julie says: "Once, Alex woke up when we were really arguing and stood at the top of the stairs with his fingers in his ears saying 'stop shouting' and that was it for me."
Laurence moved out and at first saw Alex, now six, whenever he wanted. But one day he went to the house to see his son, lost his temper over something trivial, and hit him.
"Julie said she was frightened and, after that, stopped contact because Alex was scared of me," confesses Laurence.
Julie is keen to stress that Laurence is not a violent person and that awful moment was totally out of character. "He just wasn't coping with the separation," she says.
She decided that he couldn't see Alex unless he was supervised while he dealt with his anger and sadness. At first, the court referred them to a supported centre, but this arrangement soon broke down. Laurence admits this was his fault. "I was taking photos of Alex and you weren't meant to [unless you had permission], and I told Alex not to tell anyone and he didn't like keeping secrets."
The order was rewritten for contact at Families House (see Case study). To start with, Laurence found contact visits hard. "You feel like someone can't trust you with your own child, and if you raise your voice or say something it might make their ears prick up, so you are aware of what you say and do and it's difficult."
In all, it took about 18 months before proper contact was established, a period which left Laurence increasingly frustrated at not being able to see his son.
"It can take months just to get an application to court," complains Laurence. "The court says it's in the child's interests to see both parents, so why does it take so bloody long? There were times when I wanted to walk away and give up because the process was so difficult."
Once at Families House, Laurence and Alex had one-hour contact sessions every fortnight for eight months where they would play games in the designated contact room, observed by senior social worker Amanda Marshall. Julie would use the front door, take Alex to the room and wait in the relatives' room next door. Then Laurence would come in through the back door.
Meanwhile they agreed to the court's suggestion of mediation. "This was recommended right at the beginning, but we couldn't be in the same room as each other at that time," says Julie. "When it was proposed a second time, it was probably two years after the separation and I thought I could handle it. The first session was awful, there were raised voices and Laurence stormed out. The second session was calm and we both cried and, after the third, we spoke to each other for quite a while."
Laurence agrees that mediation "sorted a lot of stuff out". But one of the hardest things for him to deal with was answering his son's question about why he had hit him.
"I had to say 'because at that stage in my life I wasn't very happy and I took it out on you'," Laurence explains.
Laurence has had unsupervised contact for six months now, and Alex stays with him from Friday to Saturday evening, and occasionally longer during the holidays.
"There's communication [with Julie] now," says Laurence. "Even though you have split, you still have a duty to your child and you have to work together as parents."
Julie says that, three years down the line, she and Laurence are best friends but that "without Families House we would never have got to where we are now".
"I get quite angry because the judges are quick to recommend contact centres but there's no government funding for them," she says. "Lots of families could resolve things a lot quicker if they could go somewhere like Families House."
Judy Birchall, regional support manager for the National Association of Child Contact Centres, says centres "provide a bridge, particularly in those early days". They are a safe, friendly, neutral place where children of separated parents can spend time with non-resident family members.
The general policy is to have different entrances or staggered times for parents to arrive. "They are somewhere to go where one parent doesn't have to see the other children don't have to meet the non-resident parent's new partner and there's someone around if the non-resident parent needs help," adds Birchall.
But there are only about 340 contact centres across England, Wales and Northern Ireland that are accredited to NACCC (Scotland has its own association), hardly enough to ensure there is one in reach of every family needing their services.
There are two types of contact centres: supported and supervised. The most common by far are supported centres, run by volunteers and suitable for families when no significant risk to the child or those around them has been identified. They do not normally make detailed reports for referrers or courts.
Supervised centres are also used when it has been determined that a child has suffered, or is at risk of suffering, harm during contact. They employ qualified staff (often social workers), have access to court papers and carry out close one-to-one observation. Some families will move from constant supervision to intermediate supervision, escorted outings or supported or unrestricted contact. Supervised contact is provided by agencies in the voluntary sector and by local authorities.
Unsuitable referrals are a "perennial problem", says Birchall, because of the lack of supervised centres - there are only about 20 - and a lack of understanding about the difference between the two types of centres.
Most families using a supported centre are private law cases. Supervised centres handle a mix of private law cases, and public law cases involving children in care proceedings. Most families are referred by solicitors, others are referred by courts, Cafcass officers, family mediators and social workers.
Birchall became involved with contact centres after hearing about their work on TV. A solicitor by profession, she was doing a lot of family law work at the time and saw contact centres as a simple way of dealing with the problems she was seeing. She has now been the co-ordinator of a supported centre in south Manchester for 17 years.
The centre is church-based so the premises are free. It has a small grant from Cafcass, although that's not guaranteed. Annual running costs are between £300 and £400, making it probably one of the cheapest centres in the country, says Birchall.
The supervised centres are chronically underfunded, she adds. "There is an assumption the government funds them, but it is unwilling to do so. The costs can be 20 times as high as supported centres because you are talking about paid professional staff and much longer working hours.
"There's a complete lack of joined-up thinking. You read all the stuff from government in various consultations, for example legal aid, and it's all about cutting back and not putting money into therapy. But if money was put into contact centres and therapeutic schemes for families then they wouldn't be in and out of court like yo-yos."
The government had funded 14 newly established supervised contact centres for a three-year set-up period. There are now only 10, and they have just finished their final year of funding. One centre in Nottingham had to close because it wasn't able to raise the necessary funds to continue.
Since April, the government has given the contact activity budget to legal guardian service Cafcass. Distribution will be on the basis of the percentage of referrals that involve Cafcass directly, so there is concern on the ground from supervised centres as to whether they can show, to Cafcass' satisfaction nationally, that they are working closely enough with them locally.
The most controversial issue surrounding contact is when there is a history of domestic violence. "About 40% of our families have some degree of domestic violence, and in some centres it's probably up to 60%," says Birchall. "You have to find the balance between well-founded and unfounded fear. If Cafcass or social services have looked at the family and think there are serious risks, then we [as a supported centre] won't take it.
"We also won't take the case if it is a parent and older child in a refuge, because we couldn't monitor whether the child was releasing information about their whereabouts to the dad. It's not an ideal situation but I don't think there is one. It becomes a balancing act. The only other way you could deal with it is by saying 'if there's any allegation of violence then there's no contact'. But then one parent would only have to allege it against the other."
Low level of protection
Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, feels strongly about this issue. "Less than 1% of contact applications made by fathers are denied. This is despite the fact domestic violence is known to have occurred in over a third of cases. This has to stop. Contact arrangements still do not provide the right level of protection for women and children."
However, over the years, Birchall has seen only a small minority of families with a history of domestic violence where contact allows a father to continue to exercise control over a child's mother.
Where she has seen more of a change is in the make up of families and the nature of their problems. Families now include lesbian and gay partners who have split up, and children living with a step-parent having contact visits with a birth parent. Problems include an increasing prevalence of drug and alcohol use and a lack of parenting skills. When mums have contact it is usually because there is an added factor - generally either drug, alcohol or mental health problems, or a combination of all three.
As Families House trustee and emeritus professor of social work at the University of East Anglia June Thoburn says, there are a lot of children suffering unnecessarily by not seeing one of their parents. "Every Child Matters should see children who are suffering as a result of conflictual contact arrangements as children in need," Thoburn says.
Case study (back)
FAMILIES HOUSE supervised contact centre, Norwich
'Losing touch isn't good for children's well-being'
Families House in Norwich is one of only a few voluntary agencies in the country providing a private law supervised contact service. All referrals result from a court order for contact. The contact centre also has a service level agreement to provide the premises to Norfolk social services to facilitate public law contact sessions.
The service it provides is in such demand that families as far away as Pembrokeshire are on the caseloads of senior social workers Amanda Marshall and Margaret Howe. Despite this, it's been close to closure every year for the last six years because of funding issues.
Families House costs £100,000 annually to run. To date it has been mainly funded by large charitable trusts, but this pump-priming funding is not available on a regular and continuous basis. Since April 2004 it has had a service level agreement with Cafcass, which funds the supervision of 10 new referrals per year. It also receives some legal aid money when its social workers write a court report on whether contact should continue. Over the last four years, the government sustainability funding (channelled initially through the National Association of Child Contact Centres and now through legal guardian service Cafcass) has been essential.
During the year to March 2007, 42 families with 53 children attended Families House for contact. The referrals included cases involving domestic violence, child protection issues, schedule one offenders, parental mental health issues, drug/alcohol abuse, parental learning disabilities, implacable hostility between parents, maternal obstruction, re-introduction of child to parent, breakdown in supported contact, cases transferred from the public law arena, and parental anger management issues.
When the parents meet Marshall and Howe they cry, says Marshall, "because it's the first time they have talked to somebody out of the adversity of the court system".
After meeting the parents separately, and then the child, they carry out a contact session as an assessment. They then write a report for the court saying whether they will take on the case. A child's safety will dictate whether a case is turned away. "If we feel the child is going to be emotionally more damaged as a result of a parent's inability to support the child, we will say no," says Marshall.
Abuse doesn't necessarily preclude contact. Howe's caseload includes a couple of fathers who have sexually abused other children but not their own. There are also four non-resident mothers out of 28 cases, and a couple of cases where the child lives with grandparents or siblings.
There is no fixed time for contact but few people leave before having 12 sessions. "It isn't a quick process it takes time for people to feel comfortable and some people are never ready to move on in terms of talking to each other," says Marshall.
"Without Families House, many of the children who come here for contact would lose touch with their mums and dads. And that isn't good for their long-term well-being."Contact the author Natalie ValiosThis article appeared in the 5 July issue under the headline "A bridge to better days"