The news on Monday that another child contact centre is to close as a result of the legal aid cuts was sad but not unexpected. The Footprints Child Contact Centre in Bradford dealt with around forty families within a year of the cuts in April 2013. However, in the following year the number fell to 30, and this year there have been just six referrals. The centre will be closing next month.
The drop in referrals is due to the fact that most of the referrals are made by solicitors, but few of the parents who used to get legal aid can afford to instruct a solicitor. Without legal advice they simply do not know of the existence of contact centres, or what services they can offer.
I have written here previously about the importance of contact centres. To briefly recap, contact centres provide a neutral, safe environment for thousands of children to maintain a relationship with a non-resident parent after separation. They perform a vital role in maintaining that relationship, and are often the only practical way that the relationship can be maintained, or re-established. In short, contact centres are an essential part of the family justice system.
Back in January 2015 the charity National Association of Child Contact Centres (‘NACCC’) reported that forty centres had closed in the previous eighteen months across England and Wales, as a result of the legal aid cuts. They said then that in 2013 the centres had been used by some 15,000 children, but in the following year that figure had dropped to just 9,000.
I’ve not seen any other figures for contact centre closures, and the NACCC has in fact been stating on its website since about 2011 that it has around 350 centres on its books, covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That obviously appears to contradict their report in January 2015. It may be that the relevant page on the site has simply not been updated, although a search of their database for all regions does seem to indicate that there are presently 353 centres on their books.
Whatever, it does seem quite clear that contact centres are under serious threat, not just from the legal aid cuts but also from cuts to funding in these straightened economic times. Just because the NACCC has a similar number of centres on its books now to what it had prior to the legal aid cuts does not of course tell us anything about the continuing viability of the centres that are still running. They rely in large part upon the fees that parents pay for using their services, and if the experience of the Footprints Centre is typical, then there must be an awful lot of centres across the country that are teetering on the brink of financial ruin.
Another search of the NACCC database for my home county of Kent reveals that there are just seven contact centres in the county that are members of NACCC. Kent has a population of about 1.7 million. Now, there may be other centres that are not members of NACCC, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that so few centres must mean that the service is already stretched, and that just a couple of closures is likely to break the service. Contact centres really need to be local to the families they serve, and if there isn’t a local centre then the family effectively loses an essential service, resulting in parents not seeing their children and, more importantly, children losing their relationship with one of their parents.
I really can’t see what can replace child contact centres. If they are to become a thing of the past then that will surely be a disaster for parents and children alike.
Image by Christina Kessler via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence