Co-written by Niall McCrae and David Kurten
For some of us, the coronavirus pandemic has been a bonus to family life. Parents who work from dawn till dusk suddenly find themselves sharing days with their precious offspring. It’s a dark cloud with a silver lining (for as long as patience lasts!)
But consider the plight of children and parents who are living apart, and who depend on family contact centres to spend any time with each other. The picture often painted in the mainstream media of contact centres is that they are places for dodgy dads to keep in touch with at-risk kids.
As usual with the media, this impression is wrong and tainted by the feminist grievance that always portrays men as being at fault and women as victims. But the truth is that a high (and growing) number of parents are restricted to such access: according to data for 2018 from the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC), ‘17827 children across the UK spent valuable time with a separated family member at a contact centre run by 3555 volunteers and 1044 members of staff’.
One reason is that since legal aid was curtailed by the government, a perverse incentive has arisen in family breakdown. A parent (most often the mother) can get full legal aid if a box for ‘domestic abuse’ is ticked. That has become much easier since the Serious Crime Act 2015 broadened the scope of abuse to include controlling and coercive behaviour. Domestic abuse can now be alleged for behaviour such as unreasonable demands, constant criticism, mind games, being overprotective or controlling the finances.
Sharing an hour or two with a child in a contact centre may be a humiliating experience for a doting dad (and sometimes a mum). But it is better than nothing, and a lifeline for maintaining a relationship as a child grows up. So it came as a shock when parents to receive a message last Friday that the NACCC was ‘suspending all face-to-face contact with immediate effect’.
Everyone’s lives have been curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. But this decision was arguably counter to government guidance, which stipulates that estranged parents should be able to continue with existing arrangements to see their children.
Michael Gove was forced to retract an erroneous comment in a television interview, when he caused outrage by suggesting that parents who don’t live with their children should not visit each other. Gove later clarified that shared parental access is a necessary activity during the restrictive virus regime.
Inevitably, child contact centres will have had difficulties due to members of staff self-isolating. But this is a key service, run by key workers. It is not a commodity like a gymnasium or library, which may be temporarily closed without undue hardship, but an indispensable facility.
‘Parenting shouldn’t end when relationships do’, the NACCC proclaims. They claim they will offer help to parents in video or telephone contact, but this will still be a devastating loss for fathers who cherish a weekly rendezvous with their children, and may not always be possible.
There is no substitute for real face-to-face contact. There are parents who have had both contact centre access and a child custody court case suspended indefinitely, and do not know when they will see their children again. For these parents, there is little hope.
Some may argue that the closure is a necessary measure to protect children and families from viral transmission. But this argument is neither used for families living together, nor for families living apart but who don’t rely on contact centres. This in inconsistent and unjust.
The NACCC should be maintaining children’s contact with both parents – the cure for coronavirus must not be worse than the disease. We only live once, and a child has only one childhood. By severing the relationship between a child and one of their parents, lasting damage could be caused. In acrimonious situations, the. parent who lives with the child might exploit the coronavirus crisis to reinforce the separation.
Politicians of both major parties liberally quote the African proverb – ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. But the fundamental relationship between a child and both of his or her parents needs to be nurtured. Contact centres must re-open: we must not harm the child to save the village.