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Failure to Understand Child Contact Centres Puts Domestic Violence Victims at Risk

Originally published 9 January 2003

Research by the University Warwick, commissioned by the Lord Chancellor's Dept, has raised serious concerns that courts often fail to understand how child contact centres work. This has significant implications for the safety of the women and children using these centres.

Where there is a history of domestic violence child contact arrangements for separated parents can be contentious and courts often require parents to use neutral contact centres. However the researchers from the University of Warwick's School of Health and Social Studies have found that courts often exhibit a dangerous lack of understanding of what constitutes supported or supervised contact, and what contact centres (often run by voluntary organisations) are actually capable of.

The researchers Dr Cathy Humphreys, Christine Harrison and Dr Rosemary Harrison found the following significant variations between the understanding referrers, contact centre staff, mothers and fathers, as to what they were entering into.

  • 68% of both resident mothers and non-resident fathers believed that arrangements were for supervised contact, when the real proportion in supervised facilities was 22%
  • 29% of referrers did not consider close supervision to be a requirement of supervised contact, compared to 16% of centre co-ordinators.
  • Disagreement about what constitutes supervised contact often meant that high vigilance was not provided.
  • Supported contact centres were often inappropriately used. One supported centre found that over one month there was evidence either of domestic violence towards resident parents or child protection concerns in 86% of families attending the centre.

Other worrying facts uncovered by the researchers included:

  • Although 85% of co-ordinators said their centre used staggered arrival times, only 42% had separate entrances. 63% of referrers were using provision they considered less than appropriate in terms of supervision or safety features.
  • 85% of the mothers had reported a history of domestic violence and 65% threats of child abduction; they were often unhappy about what they considered inadequate supervision.
  • Fathers were annoyed at what they considered unnecessary surveillance, despite the fact that the women often considered the supervision inadequate. 74% fathers wanted less supervised contact, 64% of mothers wished to retain any supervision.
  • Many of the referrals received by centres were not sufficiently detailed.
  • Where court orders were made, incorrect assumptions were sometimes made about levels of vigilance available at a particular centre
  • Assessment and referral processes did not always screen actively for domestic violence
  • 44% of centres did not screen on their referral form. 44% did not interview children, mothers or fathers. Of the centres that did interview, 82% did not use this as an opportunity for screening. 25% did not undertake a risk assessment even when domestic violence had been identified.

The researchers hope their work will:

  • Make courts think more carefully before referring parents to contact centres.
  • Help develop the range of contact options to ensure the availability of high, medium and low vigilance contact on a locality/regional basis.
  • Encourage the development and dissemination of training materials on issues raised by child contact in the context of domestic violence.
  • The provision of dedicated funding to enable specific training to be given to all contact centre co-ordinators, workers and volunteers.

For further details contact:

Christine Harrison, University of Warwick
Tel: 024 765 23541
email c.harrison@warwick.ac.uk

Dr Cathy Humphreys
Tel: 024 765 4922
Email: c.f.humphreys@warwick.ac.uk