Family contact centres close: Yet another opportunity for the state to interfere.

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.

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11 Comments on Family contact centres close: Yet another opportunity for the state to interfere.

  1. Why spoil a reasonable article by claiming that men are victims of a feminist grievance? I spent the 1960s working with the teenage victims, themselves beyond all control, of broken families and that men were invariably the guilty party was no feminist grievance. Mothers need protecting from violent and manipulative men and one might expect that to be undeniable. When Trevor Phillips made the same point about men abandoning West Indian families it was Labour not Conservatives who condemned him for telling the truth.

    Obviously there will be exceptions and it’s no comfort to be told that you are part of the small % of men who are deprived as if you are deprived of access you are 100% deprived.

    • Michael,the key difference between the probably mostly justifiable protection in the 1960s is the extent to which feminists have broadened the scope of domestic abuse (they now eshew the narrower concept of violence) to include unfounded allegations such as criticism and mindgames. Think outside you box – undue suffering is caused to children and father’s by this unjust and sexist system. How do work out your percentages?

      • Change the tax system of incentives and you will get behavioural change .

        I actually would agree with shutting these centres if I agreed with the entire policy of closing down the country .
        You either close it or you don’t .
        You don’t half close it .

        You start saying contact centres need to be open and then you get mosques need to be open and prison visiting and grandmother visits and on and on .

        • Key services stay open: shops, pharmacies, hospitals, public transport, etc. Children with shared parenting are allowed to see both parents. Child contact centres are a key service for child-parent contact, they are not dispensable.
          Apart from that specific point, this lockdown is an unmitigated disaster. Let’s say Sweden ends up with the same mortality per head as us. But didn’t trash its economy to get the same result.

          • That’s a good point, but it’s surely too early to be sure. A scatterplot of deaths vs populations next year will identify outliers that can be investigated. There’ll be multiple factors involved – cooperation of the population, demographics, policies and maybe even climate. At the moments it looks like Korea, whatever it’s doing, is doing best – but who knows?

    • Yes I agree Micheal with the first line of your comment .
      The narrative of men good,women bad is just as tedious as women good, men bad .

      Lots of kids have parents who work or have worked abroad . Pre Skype my father used to work in Antarctica for 6 months to 2 years at the time .
      Contact was the occasional postcard from the Falkland Islands.

      No contact for a few weeks won’t will kids.
      And what about mobiles and Skype?

      • Hi Catherine, on the face of it your comparison with working abroad and contact centres may seem valid. The difference is that as contact between a parent and their child(ren) is taking place in a contact centre then there will certainly be conflict between the parents. Whilst contact centre access may be appropriate in many cases, this article is highlighting that one parent may be gaming the system by alleging domestic abuse to further their custody case and with cuts to legal aid this is becoming increasingly common. If a parent has gone down this route they may also be engaging in Parental Alienation and not allow Skype or mobile calls. Due to the slow legal processes it may have taken many months to even get access in a contact centre and with removal of this service it may be many months before contact is resumed. This cannot be good for the child who maybe missing the parent. I don’t believe this article is claiming that men are victims of a feminist grievance, but in this scenario it is overwhelmingly mothers making claims against fathers.

    • The law of unitended consequences. Laws were made to protect women from abuse and rape. But they also made it easier for some women to falsely claim abuse and rape.

      This, however, does not change the fact that the vast majority of women who claim abuse and rape *were* abused and raped.

      • Skeptic, you may be right, but you don’t know this. If mothers wishing to shut a father out can (a) claim domestic abuse as a means of doing this, with no evidence required, and (b) this gets them free legal aid, then a seriously perverse incentive arises. This is doubly worse since domestic abuse was expanded top include alleged criticism. Yes, criticism – who hasn’t been guilty of that?

        • On reflection, I think maybe it has gone too far. There’s an old joke that when a woman marries she sentences herself to a lifetime of hearing the words, ‘This is all your fault.’

          But it’s a two-way street.

  2. Great article and so true. This important service to help parents maintain a relationship with their children should be kept going.

3 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Fathering through a pandemic – A Voice for Men
  2. Fathering through a pandemic | Mens Rights Alberta
  3. Fathering through a pandemic - The Rabbit Hole