Contact Centres: why delay reopening?

The large number of parents who have been waiting for up to five months to see their children in Contact Centres face a further delay, seemingly due to inexcusable bureaucracy while the Scottish Government finishes off the guidelines for centre operation.

Although the long awaited announcement on when Contact Centres can re-open was made on Thursday 20th August, it simply indicated that the centres could reopen on Monday 24th August if they are following guidance.  17 pages worth of draft guidance had been prepared by Thursday 20th, but there was still no sign of a final version, making it very difficult for contact centres to know what they need to do to comply with guidance.

Given that the Scottish Government allowed children to move between households of separated parents right from the start of lockdown in March, it is outrageous that thousands of Scottish children have been prevented for five months from seeing one of their parents, usually their father.

We know that Contact Centres have tried really hard to restart – indeed some of them had already been operating before being asked by Government to hold fire.  Many of them have been arranging video contact between parents and children, but this isn’t the same as face-to-face contact, particularly for very young children. They are currently free to arrange contact sessions out of doors, and we heard from one Centre that holding sessions in the local park has worked very well, with children and parents enjoying the chance to play outdoors.

According to the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC) in England and Wales, some contact centres in these countries have already reopened in compliance with Government guidance.  On 22nd June NACCC recommended that centres make independent decisions about whether they feel able to re-open their services.

Around 3000 children use the Contact Centres across Scotland every year for supervised or supported contact or simply handovers.  Some parents are seeing their children this way because of issues such as violence, substance misuse or other concerns, but many are simply mid-way through a family dispute.  Courts will often order contact in a Centre while information is gathered for making a final contact order, or when children have not seen a parent for a long time. Whatever the reason, Contact Centres provide a vital link between children and one of their parents.

Shared Parenting Scotland has already expressed concern to the Lord President about the delays in court reports while Centres have been closed.  We are now writing to Scottish Government Ministers urging them to give reopening the highest priority and also provide extra financial support to enable Contact Centres to expand their capacity to catch up with the backlog.  Otherwise many Scottish children will face an even longer delay in restarting contact.