Eden Child Contact Centres in Penrith and Carlisle are run under the umbrella of Cumbria Family Services (CFS), a local charity that works across the county offering early intervention and prevention services to families. CFS has a mixture of paid staff and volunteers, and the child contact centres are a small part of the service. In December 2019 NACCC asked CFS if they would take over the running of Kendal Child Contact Centre which was under threat of closure. Kendal is therefore subject to its own accreditation and has its own co-ordinator. Penrith is an attractive town in the Lake District and is the hub of the Eden Valley. It is now an important shopping centre, with a good mix of traditional shops, lined cobbled streets and arcades.
The centre in Penrith is held at the Children’s Centre run by the county council and Barnardo’s, and the centre in Carlisle is run from a county council children’s centre. The centres are open alternate Saturdays, receiving referrals from parents, Cafcass, solicitors and social work. The majority of referrals are self-referrals with most involved within the court system and the contact court ordered. The centre is located in Penrith town centre and is accessible by bus, train and car. The train station is approximately ten minutes’ walk and the bus five minutes. In view of the rural nature of Cumbria most families travel by car.
Information about the centres is on the CFS website. Leaflets and referral forms can both be downloaded from the website, along with clear instructions on how to refer. An excellent information sheet is also available for children, which can be sent via email or post.
Both buildings have a secure main entrance with a buzzer system. The reception areas of both buildings have a signing in book, hand gel, face masks and at the time of the report, a declaration Form for Covid 19. Due to Covid 19, parents are asked not to arrive before their allotted time. There is seating in reception but at the time of the report due to Covid procedures of the buildings, parents are not allowed to use the reception areas. The resident parent is encouraged not to stay whilst contact is taking place; but if they wish to wait, they can sit in a family/meeting room until their child has finished contact. The non-resident parents are shown straight into their family room. There are accessible toilets and male and female toilets at the Penrith centre. Although there is a kitchen, due to Covid 19 rules parents are currently not allowed to use the facilities and are encouraged to bring in their own drinks and snacks for the children.
Referrals are received from Cafcass, family solicitors, Family Court, Children’s Services, and from parents as self-referrals. In most cases parents are encouraged to make the referral themselves but have some level of either Cafcass or court involvement. Following receipt of a referral, a telephone interview is conducted with the referring parent to confirm the information on the form. The other parent is then contacted to ensure they know about the referral and are prepared to use the centre. If this is the case they too are asked to confirm information on the form. Further calls are made to give them information about the centre and to find out about the child’s needs and the parent’s needs. Another follow up telephone call is made to each parent to give them a starting date and there is an opportunity to discuss any issues that may have occurred or arisen within the time span of the telephone calls.
If parents want to visit the centre before they start, they are welcome to do so and a date and time will be offered but due to the vast distances in Cumbria that parents travel, they are not expected to visit the centre before starting contact. Parents are emailed the dates that contact will take place, directions to the centre and Covid 19 procedures. On a first visit the non-resident parent is asked to complete and sign the Contact Agreement and Information Sharing Consent. They are also shown around the building, pointing out toilets and fire exits. They are then given time to set up the room (at the time of the report due to Covid restrictions parents were required to bring their own toys, games, and equipment for contact). When the child/ren and resident parent arrive, they are greeted at reception. All visitors are asked Covid questions before being allowed into the reception area. Some parents are prepared to bring the children to the contact room and drop children off and others prefer not to. In the latter case a volunteer will take the child into the room and stay until the child is settled. They will then report back to the resident parent that the child is settled.
The use of pre visits assessments, contact agreements and ground-rules, staggered arrival and departure times are all essential elements in place to manage safety and have good quality contact. In view of Covid restrictions only one family at a time uses the contact room and as mentioned above, they are asked to bring their own toys and equipment. In view of this volunteers are not in the room all the time with a family but drop in at regular intervals. The co-ordinator spoke about how they felt this was more natural for families. In addition, as they bring in their own activities more time is spent sitting close together reading stories etc. Reviews have been disrupted because of Covid although two had taken place during the month of the report. The assessor and co-ordinator discussed how some families were reluctant to move on and how perhaps closer links with the local family mediation service could help two-way referrals to be made.
The centres in Penrith and Carlisle, along with their sister centre in Kendal, provide a much-needed service for separated families in Cumbria. The centre co-ordinator has been in post for five years and has over thirty years’ experience in children’s social work. The deputy has been in post for three and a half years and is also a registered social worker. The co-ordinator has an excellent oversight of the centres and has responsibility for their safe running. They have a good relationship with their line manager, the CEO who demonstrated their involvement throughout the reaccreditation process giving quick responses to queries. Similarly, issues can be taken to the board for strategic decision making and oversight. Any recommended actions following the visit are now complete meaning the service meets the standards for supported contact accreditation.