The briefing below was submitted as part of the Domestic Abuse Bill Committee debate on the accreditation of child contact centres which took place on Monday 1st February. If you’ve got 15 minutes to spare please do take time to watch the debate which is started by Baroness Finlay at 20:11.
We’ve created the following snapshot videos of the debate. Here, Baroness Finlay, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, Baroness Burt of Solihull and Baroness Jones of Moulescoombe talk about the importance of child contact centres being accredited in order that every child needing child contact services can experience the same high level of care and safeguarding.
A decision was made following the debate to withdrawn the amendment with a request for evidence on the activity of non-accredited child contact centres in the UK.
NACCC Briefing for The Domestic Abuse Bill amendment to require all Child Contact Centre to be accredited
Part 4 Local authority support: 55: Support provided by local authorities to victims of domestic abuse. “(d)ensure all Child Contact Centres and organisations that offer facilities or services for child contact are accredited, to ensure domestic abuse and safeguarding protections for children and families.”
Lines to take
Q, The Government is not convinced that this amendment is needed, nor would it provide for a more effective form of regulation than that which exists currently. We are not aware of any assessment of how many child contact centres are operating in England outside its national framework of standards. If evidence was to be presented that indicted that was an issue, then the government would be willing to give this matter further consideration. (Response received 21 Jan 2021)
Anyone can open a child contact centre and they do need to be accredited or accountable to an independent body. There are 340 contact centres which are accredited (in England, Scotland and NI) and the judicial protocol guides that courts and Cafcass should only use accredited centres.
The government’s main argument is there isn’t the evidence of a problem. While we do not have numbers of non-accredited contact centres, as this is not within our role or remit, ad hoc cases show such centres exist and standards and safeguarding pose a risk.
In essence, the government will not act until there is a major incident, we are asking government to act before such a safeguarding failure happens. The child contact system is the only service which does not have a regulatory framework requiring a process of accreditation to ensure standards and safeguarding, the Bill provides a timely opportunity to rectify this risk before such a failure necessitates action.
While councils have a general duty of care, they do not have specific standards in the area, hence DoE and Cafcass asked NACCC to draw up national standards in 2007. Childminders and nurseries are covered by regulation as a result of safeguarding failures. Let’s not wait until such failures.
The Women’s Aid ‘19 Homicides Report’ (2016)  and the government recent HARM report  both evidence failures and weaknesses in the current contact system. In launching the HARM report the Minister said “The testimonies in the report show that there are some fundamental issues that we must address in order to improve the experience and ensure the safety of all participants in the family justice system.” (ibid). It is self-evidence that such risks will be amplified in areas without oversight.
Q, The family court cannot refer families to non-accredited child contact centres as part of a Child Arrangements Order. In private law cases a judicial protocol has been in place for nearly two decades, guiding courts to refer families to child contact centres and services that are members of NACCC and so subject to the agreed national standards and an accreditation process.
The Judicial protocol is a vitally important document which Baroness Butler-Sloss first introduced. However, while providing guidance it is not used by all judges and magistrates and doesn’t stop anyone from setting up a contact centre outside this part of the system.
Q, What is the purpose of the amendment?
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure child contact centres and services are consistently managed, staff and volunteers properly trained and that standards and safeguarding are of a high and universal standard across England and Wales.
In the case of domestic abuse it will ensure staff are appropriately trained to identify and handle child contact cases involving domestic abuse (via training requirements).
In addition, the standards also have very clear guidance on risk assessing domestic abuse cases and the appropriate level eg supported or supervised, which has a higher level of supervision.
Q What will the amendment mean in practice?
The amendment will require all child contact centres and services used by local authorities to be accredited by an independent body, not just overseen by LAs.
Q, How many referrals are there outside the judicial protocol to unaccredited centres?
Information on all child contact centres and services is not held centrally or monitored by government or other bodies, there is unfortunately a lack of clarity around the extent of the problem of unaccredited centres. However, there is evidence of individuals setting up contact facilities in their own residence. An example of this has been seen recently, where a parent in a domestic abuse case, tried to comply with a Child Arrangements Order to have supervised contact, by setting up his own centre, in a private residential property, where he would have effectively supervised himself. This clearly would not have been safe or appropriate otherwise, there would be no need for the court to have issued the Child Arrangements Order. This case was fortunately brought to our attention and managed but would not have been unless flagged up. There are likely to be other ‘centres’ operating, which we or LAs are not aware of until they are reported and the contact arrangements are inappropriate and where there are safeguarding issues.
Our concerns around unaccredited child contact centres are (1) safeguarding risks around contact which is not accredited (2) quality of contact and the environment if there are no standards in place and (3) standards which includes mandatory training including on awareness of domestic abuse, and risk assessment.
Q, What’s the impact of domestic abuse on children?
Up to 1 in 5 children and young people are exposed to domestic abuse . Living in a home where domestic abuse happens can have a serious impact on a child or young person’s mental and physical wellbeing, as well as their behaviour. The impact of domestic abuse on children, the potential for cycles of abuse and the normalisation of such behaviour cannot be underestimated. Children affected by domestic violence can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, they can become depressed and battle suicidal tendencies .
Q, How does family breakdown affect children in the UK?
The UK has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in the Western world, with just 68% of children living with both parents . Such family breakdown also has an immense emotional, psychological, social and economic costs on children and society.
The impacts of family breakdown can be deleterious; for younger children, damaging attachment and a child’s sense of security, identity which acts as a framework for social relationships ; for older children it damages mental health, alcohol and drug use, lower educational attainment and problems with relationships.
Q, What are the benefit which flow from the amendment / proposed requirement?
The amendment will ensure consistent high standards of contact.
It will reduce the duplication of work and expertise by requiring local authorities to use an independent accreditation body to drive improvements in standards and safeguarding services. It will also provide clear standards for commissioning services to clarify their duty of care.
The amendment will protect the child’s interests during divorce and separation, to ensure where necessary they are protected against domestic abuse, and where appropriate they retain a meaningful relationship with their non-resident parent.
The amendment will also address the findings of the APPG on Domestic Abuse’s report, ‘Domestic Abuse, Child Contact and the Family Courts’, around domestic abuse and child contact. It will ensure;
- Child contact is not used as a tool to continue to perpetrate coercive and controlling behaviour, where children can be at risk of further emotional or physical harm through contact.
- Very unsafe or inappropriate contact does not take place.
- All volunteers and staff have up-to-date specialist domestic violence training to ensure the protection of women and children.
Q, Why do we need further regulation in this area?
The current child contact system is not optimal and domestic abuse and other issues can be inappropriately handled. Local authorities have a statutory obligation under Section 34 of the Children Act 1989, to promote contact between children and their parents and relevant others and are subject to legal, inspection and accountability frameworks to protect and safeguard children in their care. However, commissioning of services should not be driven by cost but quality.
Section 34 is a general duty and local authorities do not have a specific standards or expertise by which to measure the quality of contact. Of the 78,000 looked after children council handled in 2019 only up to 20,000 could have engaged in contact in a NACCC accredited centre. Therefore over 75% of child contact is in unaccredited centres of varying standards.
Q, Is the amendment seeking to strengthen the role of The National Association of Child Contact Centres?
No. The amendment specifically does not reference NACCC. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Child Contact Centres met in July 2019, with key sector stakeholders including Barnardos, The Salvation Army, Cafcass and Family Action, there was a collective view to support a statutory framework for the accreditation of Child Contact Centres but also that NACCC should not be named as the accrediting body in any proposed legislation.
Indeed, we have written to government to clarify our advocacy approach – Trustees are overwhelmingly of the view that strengthening the framework for child contact, to ensure universal standards across the UK, would be in the best interest of children and families and lead to improved outcomes for both.
Q, What were the relevant findings in the HARM report?
The government’s recent HARM report, identified that professionals involved in child arrangement cases ‘show a lack of understanding of the different forms that domestic abuse takes, and of the ongoing impacts of abuse on children and victim parents’, highlighting a number of issues around systematic minimisation of abuse and unsafe child arrangements and the panel found these issues were underpinned by a pro-contact culture, siloed working and an adversarial system. Without a professional contact system which operates to consistent standard the issues identified in the HARM report will persist and it is self-evidence that such risks will be amplified in child contact centres without oversight.
 Action for Children
 OECD 2012