A contact centre is a safe place for children to spend time with people that they care about that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.
Before contact starts the centre will invite you to have a look round, meet the staff and see the centre. We call this a ‘pre-visit’. Your child and the family member that they live with will have a separate visit at another time. This visit is a good chance for you all to find out about how the centre will work with your family but it is also really important that you are able to share about your situation so that the centre staff can make sure that their service is going to be right for your situation. (See our other questions about what happens at a pre-visit for more detail)
As long as the pre-visits go well and the centre is still happy to accept your application you will be invited to come for your first contact session. A contact session is where you and your child can spend time together, do an activity or play a game.
Depending on if you are using a supported or a supervised centre (and also on the layout of the centre) there might be several families using the centre at the same time, or you might have the contact room to yourself with a member of staff observing.
Because centres are all different it might be best to ask them about how they will support you and what will be happening there.
Are you finding that conversations regarding your children’s arrangements result in arguments? Is it impossible to reach an agreement about contact? If you are finding it difficult to discuss arrangements regarding your children with your ex-partner or family then it may be that a child contact service would be helpful in the short term. Supported child contact centres can provide a safe neutral place for contact where you as family members do not have to see each other face to face if this is going to be easier for you.
If you have experienced domestic abuse and need somewhere safe for your child to spend time with your ex-partner or family member in a supervised environment, then it might be worth discussing this with your local supervised centre. If you are concerned that your child might be at risk of harm, then a supervised centre might be a way of re-establishing contact whilst ensuring that your child’s physical and emotional wellbeing are maintained.
Staff working at child contact centres will have appropriate qualifications and experience depending on the level of the role. If you have a query about the qualifications of staff at your local centre it is probably best to check this with them. The people running supported contact centres may not have specific qualifications but will have received the appropriate training to carry out the service. Contact supervisors in a supervised centre will likely have an NVQ Level 3 qualification in Health and Social Care (or equivalent). Co-ordinators or managers or supervised centres will ideally have a social work qualification or similar.
Once your referral has been accepted by the centre, both parties will be invited to a pre-visit. This is where the centre will go through their ground rules, and you will have the opportunity to discuss with them if you are able to bring gifts and food.
Seeing your child at a contact centre is a very emotionally provocative event for you and your child. Initially, it is best if these sessions are used for you and your child to build and strengthen your relationships in this very unfamiliar environment.
In terms of the needs of your child it is worth remembering that a lot has changed in their lives recently, and maybe changes are still happening. This is likely to be very unsettling and hard to get used too, even if your child seems to be managing well. What children need is consistency and security. Therefore, it is usually best not to introduce them to new people that might make them feel insecure, until other elements of their lives feel a little more stable for them.
However, it might be possible for other people to attend child contact sessions with you after you have been using the service for some time. This will need to be discussed with the centre, prior to making any arrangements. You should not come to the centre with visitors without letting them know. Typically, they will want to seek the agreement of all parties before approving such requests.
If it is agreed, then your child can be introduced to new people, or people that they have not seen for a very long time. A supervised centre or social worker will be able to assist with planning this (re)introduction to ensure that this happens in the best way for the child. For most children, it is important that nothing is sudden or unplanned.
Without a court order in place, a contact centre referral is only successful where both parties are in agreement. Neither Bold Moves nor the contact centre have any powers to make anyone attend a child contact centre. If a party is not agreeable to contact you should seek some legal advice.
Generally speaking, if a court order has been made the people named in the order should abide by what is written into the order and there might be legal consequences for not doing this. If a court order is not practicable or something has changed since the order was written, you might want to consider accessing legal advice to ascertain whether the order will need changing.
At a supervised centre, it might be possible for a staff member to help you, or even to role model how to meet the basic care needs of your child. Where this is happening, it will always be because this is what is best for your child and will usually be because they are working with you to help you to gain the skills to do this independently.
At a supported centre, the people working there do not complete basic care tasks. The expectation would be that all parents using the service are competent at meeting all the needs of their children. Volunteers in supported centres will usually be happy to support you if you occasionally need this, but often this support would be limited to advice about how to meet your child’s needs and then you would independently act upon this.
If you have never changed a nappy, fed or winded a child before – talk to the centre about this. Don’t be embarrassed, there might be a way that they can support you. You definitely will not be the first or last parent that has worried about this.
Once your referral has been accepted by the centre, both parties will be invited to a pre-visit. This is where the centre will go through their ground rules, and you will have the opportunity to discuss with them the use of cameras, mobile devices and photographs while at the centre. The contact centre will have their own processes relating to this.
Bold Moves are a membership organisation, and the centres we accredit are run independently of Bold Moves and therefore have their own complaints process. In the first instance, you should ask the centre for a copy of their procedure; this will advise you on how to make a formal complaint to the centre.
Once you have followed the centre’s complaints process and if you remain unhappy you can complain to Bold Moves. It is important to be realistic about your expectations though and really clearly explain what outcome you would like to achieve. Bear in mind that our role at Bold MOves is to ensure the centre followed its procedure and not to re-investigate or look at evidence.
Whilst you are in contact with your child it would not be usual for the other parent to be present. Often, they won’t be in the session with you, but they might wait in the waiting room. Otherwise they might pop to the shops or find somewhere to buy coffee whilst they wait. The centre will always have a way to contact the person your children live with, so if support is needed it will never be too far away.
This may be mentioned in a court order if contact is court ordered. This will also depend on the centre’s opening hours, availability and what is decided during your pre-visit at the centre.