and a very happy birthday to the Redditch Child Contact Centre.
Experiences within her own family meant that Mrs Mary Lower, MBE, a Nottingham Magistrate realised how vital it was for the emotional well-being of children to keep in touch with both parents after a family breakdown. Her work as a magistrate put Mary in a position where she became aware of the lack of informal venues where children could meet the parent no longer sharing their home. She, therefore, set about the task of establishing a Child Contact Centre in Nottingham.
On Saturday 2 February 1985 the Nottingham Access Centre opened. A rota of volunteers was formed within the congregation of St Andrew’s with Castle Gate United Reformed Church, Nottingham and the church agreed to fund the venture as part of their ‘outreach’ programme.
The idea spread through the network of the United Reformed Church and beyond. As a result of this interest, the Nottingham Access Centre held a national workshop day in September 1988. Representatives of nine schemes, came together to share experiences and information.
At Christmas in 1988, Mary Lower and the Nottingham Child Contact Centre appeared on Songs of Praise talking about the work of her contact centre. The camera crew were allowed into the centre and filmed some of what they saw.
When this went out on air, people around that nation saw this, Particularly Elisabeth Grove in Redditch. Upon reflection on what she had seen and the impact, this was having she started speaking to others associated with her church community to see what the interest would be.
In the new year, Elisabeth and a colleague went to visit the contact centre, soon followed by a regional networking meeting. The aim of attending these events had been to see whether setting up a similar service might be practicable in Redditch.
Elisabeth reported back about the merits of a volunteer workforce coming together to meet the local community and the impacts that this had been having in the areas where such services were already set up. She also expressed the view that whilst this would be invaluable, she did not see herself as the person who would be overseeing such a service.
Mary Lower went on to form The Network of Access & Child Contact Centres in 1991, this became the National Association of Child Contact Centres in 1998. Mary remained central to the work of the organisation until she passed away in 2017.
Elisabeth has continued to engage with the regional network since its formation. In the 1990’s she recalled a meeting in Birmingham which included judges, social workers, barristers, solicitor’s etc. Elisabeth led a discussion group at which Mary Lower was present and Elisabeth said we support contact we do not supervise, at this point, Mary Lower took this comment back to NACCC and they then promoted the term supported contact.
A commonsense attitude enabled the expansion of this idea and hence the terms “Supported” and “Supervised” contact was born. They couldn’t have known this at the time, but this language was to be accepted nationally (and internationally) and not appears on children’s files, family records, and Court Orders far and wide. Whilst there is a growing argument for updates to the language that the pioneers of contact invented, it remains the fact that these commonly understood terms form the basis of the work of NACCC to this date.
With Mary’s influence, Elisabeth was fundamental in setting up the Redditch Child Contact Centre, which runs from the Ecumenical Centre, in the middle of the main shopping area of the town. As is so often the case, she remains overseeing the service (despite setting out her stall early on), with the support of Samantha Swanborough, the management group, and a passionate group of volunteers. The centre will have supported many hundreds of children to spend time with family members that they no longer live with during this time, having an immeasurable impact on the people who live in the community.
Throughout the years that the Redditch centre has been undertaking its vital work, they have encountered many challenges, and there will be more to come. One of the more notable, examples recently includes the Corona Virus.
As news of the virus reaching the UK started to break in early 2020, services were left making heartbreaking decisions about whether it was safe to continue their work. Like many others, Redditch Child Contact Centre decided that the most appropriate thing to do to protect its families and volunteers would be to temporarily close its doors.
Whilst the virus gripped news headlines for the best part of two years, the centre was soon able to innovate and put measures in place to ensure the safety of those using the service and opened sooner. However, some of the volunteers found themselves in a position whereby they needed to think more carefully about their own circumstances, particularly those who might be vulnerable to illness, which meant that some could not return to their previous roles.
During the time when restrictions to the movement were still in place, the 30th Anniversary of the creation of the Redditch Child Contact Centre also came and quietly passed by. However, on 28th January 2022, the centre felt able to come together as a team to celebrate this momentous occasion with, some music, great company, and a slice of cake.