The Hertford Contact Centre is based in the Hertford Methodist Church which is a few minutes’ walk from the town centre and shops, and close to public transport links. Hertford serves as a commuter town for London and has two stations with links to London and the north east. There is adequate free car parking to the rear of the building, and access to the centre through the main door on the side of the building. Hertford Contact Centre has been providing a supported contact service for thirteen years. Families generally use the centre for up to three months and then their attendance is reviewed. The centre is not able to facilitate supervised contact.
The sessions take place in the main church hall which is to the side of the church. The centre uses only ground floor space and there is easy access for wheelchairs. There is no reception area as such, but families are met at the door and bought into the hallway, from where they are directed to a waiting area for resident parents in a large room furnished with ample seating. Non-resident parents are shown directly into the contact hall to await the arrival of their children. The contact hall is large, high ceilinged and well maintained. It is light and airy with a row of high windows along one side and has ample tables and chairs to accommodate families. The contact hall opens to the kitchen through a hatch. Male and female toilets are across the corridor and there is a baby change in the disabled toilet. The toilets were observed to be clean and well maintained. There is a small outside paved area, which is enclosed and safe for families to use under supervision.
The centre closed for six months from March 2020 due to the Covid pandemic lockdown. They reopened for face-to-face contact in September 2020 with safety precautions in place to prevent the spread of the virus. At the time of the report as part of their Covid arrangements, the contact centre is asking parents to bring their own toys and activities for children. This had been well received by parents and has resulted in parents being creative in the activities they provide for their children. The contact centre still has a supply of toys and games stored behind the stage curtain which can be used if parents are not able to bring anything with them.
When a referral form is received, the co-ordinator will screen it to check that it is appropriate for the centre. If supervised contact is more appropriate, then this recommendation will be made and the referral will be refused.
Pre-visits are mandatory and take place prior to the start of contact. The co-ordinator, usually arranges the time and date by phone or email, making separate arrangements for each parent. During Covid, the co-ordinator is providing some pre-visits by phone but is still inviting children if they are appropriate age to benefit from this, and also any anxious parents who wished to see the premises and be reassured prior to contact starting. The resident parent and children would be invited in during a session so they can meet the volunteers and be familiar with the environment. During the pre-visit, the volunteers will ensure that the child understands what they are there for and feels comfortable in the setting. If the child is anxious, discussion will take place about how best to reassure and prepare them. The pre-visit meeting includes a discussion about the referral information and any risks will be explored with the parents. They will be given a full explanation of when happens when they attend the centre. Any concerns they may have will be listened to and any necessary arrangements or restrictions discussed to ensure they feel safe and comfortable. Parents are then asked to sign up to the guidelines and ground rules for behaviour.
The centre operates a system that provides for staggered arrival and departure times, which is implemented using a separate waiting room for resident parents. Visiting parents go straight to the contact room and a volunteer brings the children to them there. At the end of the session, the visiting parent is not allowed to leave the contact room until ten minutes after the family has left the premises.
The co-ordinator has put in place a clear message that supported contact will be for three months only. Because it is a small service, the co-ordinator is aware of how each family is progressing and will review the situation after a few sessions as appropriate. Reviews take place through informal discussion with each parent, and (if applicable) any relevant professional involved. The co-ordinator encourages families to take advantage of the centre’s three-month involvement to progress towards supported handovers and community contact where safe to do so. They will signpost them to the Cafcass Parenting Plan where this may be helpful.
The co-ordinator has been in post for ten years. They are responsible for all aspects of running the centre and are knowledgeable, committed, and works effectively with the support of a small but stable management committee. The co-ordinator also works as a teaching assistant in a school and has wide experience of working with children and their families. The volunteers present as friendly and supportive of the co-ordinator. They receive regular training and bring a range of skills and knowledge from their own backgrounds. They have shown their commitment to the service through remaining involved for a number of years. As with many centres, it is the issue of finances that dominates the centre’s sustainability and development, and the co-ordinator is considering new ideas to develop the service.
The Hertford Contact Centre is a small, friendly service, focused on providing a safe and caring environment for the children and families who attend. The premises provide a safe and suitable environment for the limited number of families who attend the sessions. The co-ordinator is experienced, capable and committed, and is well supported by the volunteers and the management committee. Families appreciate the service provided, and children can spend their time at the centre safely and enjoyably whilst rebuilding family relationships. Any recommended actions following the visit are now complete meaning the service meets the standards for supported contact re-accreditation.