Published: 21st January 2015
The National Association for Child Contact Centres (NACCC) in England and Wales have revealed that Child Contact Centres are closing at an alarming rate - with 40 closures in the past 18 months - due to cuts to legal aid.
Child Contact Centres provide a neutral and secure place for children to maintain contact with a non-resident parent or family member and are often recommended by family solicitors and social workers in cases where the resident parent has raised concerns about a family member, yet wishes their child to have supervised or supported contact or where there are allegations of abuse, physical violence, neglect or parental alienation.
The centres aim to promote strong family relationships and help children to repair relationships that may have become strained due to the separation or divorce of their parents.
The NACCC have expressed their concerns that more centres are likely to close in future, as the removal of legal aid in family law cases have meant that separating parents have no choice but to represent themselves in the family courts without legal representation. This has had a huge impact on the number of referrals to Child Contact Centres from solicitors who would have usually recommended them to the centres.
In 2014, the number of children who used a Child Contact Centre fell 60% from the previous year, from 9,000 children compared to 15,000 in 2013. The NACCC have reported that solicitor referrals have also reduced by 50% over the same period. Most centres rely on the work of volunteers and local organisations like schools, churches, councils to host the centres and receive only small contributions from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) to survive.
The removal of legal aid and in turn, the falling number of referrals from solicitors have meant that 10% of centres have had to close already, with many others on the brink of closure across the country.
NACCC Chief Executive Elizabeth Coe said, "Parents are walking away because they don’t know who to contact for help, normally their first port of call would be a solicitor, but that is not happening now."
"Given that family breakdown costs the country an estimated £49bn a year, family legal aid cuts may prove a false economy, unless more is done to let families know the contact centres are there to help and that parents can apply to centres directly themselves."
The main victim of the closures are the children themselves, as it is essential that children maintain and build on the relationships they have with non-resident parents and other family members like aunties, uncles and grandparents. Child Contact Centres allow for these relationships to continue and without them, the child isn't able to establish relationships that may benefit them in the long run.
Fathers also stand to lose out with the closures of Child Contact Centres, as NACCC data shows that in 90% of cases, it is the father who is the non-resident parent. Without a neutral meeting place, many fathers may give up on the relationship with their children as they won't have an adequate place to meet with them.
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