Bishop Auckland Family Contact Centre has been providing supported and handover contact for over twenty years. They are based at the Bishop Auckland Methodist Church on Cockton Hill Road. The location of the centre is excellent with car parking and public transport links. They are overseen by the Bishop Auckland Community Partnership, which is a registered charity; it has many projects under its umbrella that are beneficial to local people and visitors to Bishop Auckland Town. All their projects are funded and non-profit making, made up with part time staff and volunteers; the provision of the Community Resource Centre, a Venture Out Project, Family Contact Centre Project, Four Clocks Club Project, and a Cultivate 4 Life Project. Although Bishop Auckland is only a small town, the centre serves a large area in terms of referrals and distance families will travel.
The centre has a large play area with a range of toys and equipment to meet the needs of a good range of children. The centre has a main hall for contact, a reception area where visiting parents can wait, separate entrances/exits for parents to use, toilets, kitchen (which looks through to the contact room) and baby changing facilities. Both front and back door entrances are locked and entry is gained via a buzzer system. The volunteers are mainly based in the kitchen which is central to both the contact room and waiting room.
Since COVID most referrals come from Cafcass although self-referrals are also accepted. A smaller number are received from family solicitors and family mediators. Cafcass referrals will include copies of any court orders. Parents are invited to attend a mid-week pre visit at the Four Clocks Centre, where the Bishop Auckland Community Partnership is based. Parents are also offered the opportunity to attend the church hall for a pre visit if required, but this is rarely taken up due to the distance families travel. From receipt of referral to starting contact is usually around a month. At the time of the report there were 5 families attending and this is usually the limit, although on occasions 6 have been allowed.
Following pre visit assessments of both parents (if contact is deemed as suitable to go ahead), each parent is given a set of contact rules to sign and a contact agreement is discussed. This will include who is attending for contact, contact times, etc. A calendar of agreed dates is given to each parent. Children are invited to attend the initial pre visit with the resident parents so that they can meet staff. If this is not possible a member of staff or volunteer spends some time with them and the resident parent on contact day prior to taking them into the contact room. As a matter of good practice all parents have staggered arrival and departure times and do not meet in the building. Visiting parents are encouraged to visit the town centre whilst contact is happening rather than stay in the waiting room, but this is not always practical.
During the pandemic the church was closed, and contact was therefore transferred to the Four Clocks Centre where families were offered individual contact sessions either in the centre or the local community. This was much appreciated by families.
The family contact centre co-ordinator has been in post for over 6 years and also works for the police and therefore has a good working knowledge of mental health, drug & alcohol, domestic abuse and child protection. They are responsible for organising contact sessions, (including the rota of volunteers and register of families); supporting volunteers inside/outside of contact sessions; liaison with professionals re referrals; assessing and dealing with referrals, arranging pre visits for parents and assessment of suitability for service; ongoing support of families, including reviewing and supporting to move on; reporting to the board, updating policies, arranging training; passing invoices and finances to the treasurer; recruitment and selection of volunteers, including DBS and liaison with NACCC.
The Bishop Auckland Family Contact Centre is the only remaining free contact centre in the north-east region and has a dedicated co-ordinator and volunteer team. The assessor hopes that the centre continues to flourish. Any recommended actions following the visit are now complete meaning the service meets the standards for supported contact re-accreditation.