Following the passage of the Children (Scotland) Act the Scottish Government held a consultation in 2021 about various aspects of the regulation of Child Contact Centres.
An analysis of the 59 responses to that consultation has just been published. First point to note is about who responded – more than half the responses were from individuals, and the second largest group were third sector/advocacy organisations, with only three responses from legal organisations.
As could be expected from the discussion during the passage of the legislation, some responses were from individuals or organisations who have concerns about the way that Contact Centres operate, whereas others, including the one from Shared Parenting Scotland, were more supportive of the important role of the Centres in facilitating child contact.
While our response did indicate areas of training and work practice that could be changed once the regulation starts, we are also very concerned that these changes and the resultants costs do not make it even more difficult for Scottish Contact Centres to provide a speedy and comprehensive service.
Given that many Centres are already struggling to deal with a backlog caused by the Covid-related restrictions, we currently need more capacity to ensure that restarting contact is not unduly delayed and that reports can be provided to court as soon as possible.
The consultation sought views on accommodation and training standards for child contact services, how the standards should be monitored and what the complaints procedures should be. There was majority support for most of the proposals, with strong emphasis on the need for Contact Centres to be adequately funded to carry out these changes.
Let’s hope that these consultation responses help to loosen the Government purse strings. The origins of Contact Centres lie in voluntary effort by local charities often funded by jumble sales. Nowadays these services play a crucial role in the family court system by providing a safe option for sheriffs to order a restart of contact as soon as possible after a court action is raised.
Serious amounts of Government money should now be provided on a long-term basis to ensure that this task can be carried out properly.
Survey responses also noted that plugging geographical gaps in provision across Scotland will require both new funding and a flexible approach. The purpose-built facilities that can be provided in a large town or city are simply not possible in the ad-hoc arrangements in some remote rural areas or islands, but children should be able to see their parents without the need for long journeys.
There was reasonable agreement across most of the consultation questions, except for the vexed question of entrances. Some respondents insisted that Contact Centres should all have two entrances so that parents do not have to see each other if domestic abuse has taken place, whereas others suggested this was not essential or practical and suggested alternative procedures that could be adopted, such as staggered entrance times, separate waiting rooms or the co-ordination of drop-offs and pick-ups.
The consultation report states that it is expected that the regulation of child contact services will be fully operational in 2023 – we welcome that statement of intent given the length of time it has taken to get to this stage in the process.