Formerly known as Access, Contact is where the children spend time with the non-resident parent and can write or telephone inbetween. Most contact agreements are settled amicably with many parents recognising the need for their children to maintain a relationship with both.
When considering contact arrangements think about the ages of your children, any special needs, accommodation if they are to stay overnight and the location of the absent parent. You should make regular arrangements that can be adhered to but build in flexibility for events such as illness or holidays. You should also specify contact arrangements for Christmas, Birthdays and other special occassions.
Unfortunately many children lose contact with one of their parents through the process of divorce. Animosity and disputes between parents often mean that the children get caught up in the middle. Try and keep contact arrangements amicable and avoid court action at all costs. This should be a last resort and could be a slippery slope to losing contact with your children altogether. To keep contact arrangements from court:
- Try to stay on amicable terms with your ex. Be aware of their needs and try to keep the lines of reasonable communication open
- Do not talk about your ex in a negative manner or ask probing questions when you see your children. Doing so could upset them and make things difficult for them when they go home
- Set down regular times for contact including arrangements for holidays and Christmas and stick to them. Your ex and your children need to know where they are
- Always return the children on time and do not keep them for longer without permission even if you feel you are being hard done by. Keep an emergency telephone number in case you will be late due to circumstances beyond your control
- Make sure that your children have your address and telephone number and encourage them to contact you in-between visits. It is a good idea to get them to commit a telephone number or e-mail address to memory if you are concerned that your ex may try and stop contact altogether
- If you are concerned that the children are not there when they should be or that your ex is messing around with the arrangements, contact a solicitor. Suggest mediation as a way of coming to an agreement and insist that court action is your last resort
- Keep a diary of everything and include dates, details of conversations and issues of concern. This could be a useful aid in the future
Contact Centres are neutral venues for contact and can simply be a drop off point for children to avoid parents having to meet at home or used for "supervised" contact. They are run by the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC) and are staffed by well meaning volunteers who are there to ensure the safety of the children. However, they are not supervised in the sense that any court reports can be prepared. The contact centre staff will not get involved in your case so if contact is going well it will be your word against your exes. Contact centres are open for limited hours and at fixed times. They are overwhelmingly aimed at young children and you will not get one to one contact with your child, you will be in a room with many other parents and children.
Contact Centres can offer genuine safety to a child who is considered at risk, for example from an ex partner suspected of child abuse. They can offer a safe venue for women who have been the victim of domestic violence and may wish to keep their address secret from their former partner. They also offer a way for a parent, following a prolonged period of absence, to build up a relationship before taking their child out on their own.
Unfortunately the Contact Centre system is often abused and manipulated by parents seeking to use their children to score points off the other or attempting to stop contact altogether. The courts often insist on contact in a supervised centre because a parent has made unfounded allegations against the other. You will be told that it is an interim measure which will not be held against you. This is not true. Getting out of the contact system can be difficult as your ex will undoubtedly mention in a future statement that you have only been capable of supervised contact, and proving your ability to look after your children alone is impossible if you are not given the chance to do so. Restricted contact may also affect your relationship with your children (See Parental Alientation Syndrome).
If you are in the contact centre system suggest building up non-contact time to show that you can be trusted with your children, for example two hours in and one out of the centre for the first month. Collect evidence showing your ability to look after children and consider obtaining a police check (see Dealing with Unfounded Allegations). Finally if you are granted unsupervised contact do not abuse it! Stick within the terms and conditions and ensure that the children are returned on time, as any breech will undoubtedly mean a return to supervised contact and add to the stress and trauma already experienced by your children.