Since the covid-19 outbreak over 50 centres have been providing contact services for families using technology despite their venues being closed. This has been a time that has affected all relationships but has particularly impacted on children not able to see family members due to parental separation. However, NACCC accredited contact centres have risen to the occasion and have ventured into new territory with some surprising and unexpected results for families. Stories of the amazing work being done have been coming through which we wanted to share with you.

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels
“Using technology to facilitate contact has brought some surprising and unexpected opportunities for families… this is a new opportunity for contact centres for the future, with people now realising that distance is not a limiting factor for contact.”

Family Ties like other providers were inundated with requests to continue facilitating contact. They investigated several solutions working with families, security experts and professionals to find an optimum solution for families. They told us:

“Ensuring and maintaining family links was found critically important for those children where the lockdown and parental separation had put a stop to the majority of face-to-face encounters. But during this time using technology to facilitate the contact, some surprising and unexpected opportunities for families to do things in during contact they have never achieved before.”

“The first thing we started with was a pre-contact meeting with both parties to ensure technology worked, and the rules of contact with clear expected outcomes were explained. Arranging 30min sessions for the contact was seen as the optimum time for the virtual contact session with most children. But that did not mean all contacts lasted the full 30mins and both parties were made aware of this during pre-contact meeting.”

“Contact included helping with home schooling, story time to interactive games. Using the guidelines from NACCC and other professionals we helped families move from unstructured to really structured positive contact. Parties used to telephone calls with poor interaction were supported to a situation with both parties excited to fill the full 30mins with activities.”

“So far Family Ties has facilitated over 100 sessions with multiple ages of children from 6months old to 14 years old. All sessions are very different from a 6-month old playing peekaboo to all sorts of stories around films and games they have played. The key thing out of all sessions was to make sure they ended on a positive note. Ensuring that keeping all parties updated and ensuring contact started on-time and was consistent meant that all were happy with the sessions. This does add a new opportunity for contact centres for the future, with people now realising that distance is not a limiting factor for contact. By using a third party has helped families to ensure problem phone calls can be replaced by a positive virtual contact.”

“We have been able to identify children who feel nervous about seeing their parent face-to-face and who maybe haven’t done so for a number of months or years and give them this opportunity to begin contact in this way…”
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Video contact has been a new service for Cheltenham Child Contact Centre which has been set up over the last month. Sarah, Co-ordinator describes their experience:

“I couldn’t help feel disappointed when lockdown was announced for those children who would miss out on seeing the parent they don’t live with and can only see in the safety of a contact centre. It was important to me that we were able to offer facetime contact for these children. Our staff have been working hard to set this up and have seen this grow and grow over the last few weeks. We have now begun to start new referrals which have come through to the centre over the lockdown period.”

“For me as manager, seeing a child and her father have their first session of facetime was one of those moments worth ‘getting out of bed for’ – to witness an 8-year-old girl talk and talk to her father for the hour’s session was lovely. The father also had a letter and some pictures from the girl’s grandparents which he read to her, making her smile more and more. The whole session from start to finish was awe inspiring and I feel a privilege to be a part of that special moment. The girl’s mum (resident parent) said that her father could facetime her on her birthday and I sat on the call for this. This was something that without this means to do contact, could never have happened. The girl’s father told me.

“These sessions on Zoom have been really valuable to me, without them, I wouldn’t have been able to maintain contact with my daughter. They have also helped me with my mental health, I have been suffering a bit lately, the zoom sessions really do lift my mood and make my day.”

I think what has been the best thing about these facetime contact sessions is that we have been able to identify children who feel nervous about seeing their parent face to face and who maybe haven’t done so for a number of months or years and give them this opportunity to begin contact in this way. We feel at the Cheltenham Child Contact Centre that this will become another tool in our contact belt and we will continue to use this in certain situations once face to face contact can resume. We can identify a number of cases where this is a great means for beginning contact, as another part in the stepping-stones of resuming normal contact once more. Cheltenham Contact Centre has been able to offer this to children of all ages including sibling groups. It’s been wonderful to be a part of this lockdown experience for these families and even though like others we are hoping to resume face to face contact soon, we feel we have been able to maintain family relationships with children and a parent they no longer live with in what has been these unprecedented times.”

A useful contingency but not a replacement for face-to-face contact with #digitalpoverty affecting many

This is not the end of the story. Video contact may be a useful tool for centres to harness as they start to reopen. Children and parents living in different parts of the country may be able to keep in touch to a degree who would not have been able to previously. Service families with a parent deployed overseas for long periods may also find this helpful if contact is a struggle. NACCC is committed to supporting any member centre considering using video contact in the future.

We have produced a micro site for its members and external organisations with full guidance on using technology to enable contact to happen. The site contains an overview, a step by step guide, guidance on how to Skype, a contact agreement and more.

A rapid evidence review published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory of the effects of digital contact on the well-being of children in care describes digital contact as having advantages over more formal contact sessions in being more immediate, less formal and can help facilitate relationships. Digital contact (with appropriate support) allowed children and young people to feel more connected to their birth families, develop their sense of identity, and have more freedom and control over contact arrangements.

However, as pointed out by the study although this has been a useful contingency measure when face to face contact is not possible it should not be seen as a long-term replacement for direct contact. It acknowledges that there are benefits of face-to-face contact that are lost through digital contact alone.

The study points out that access to digital technology, good quality internet connections and skills varies significantly throughout the UK meaning that digital contact is not possible for all young people and their families. NACCC has appealed to tech suppliers to come forward and assist in this venture.

1 The effects of digital contact on children’s well-being: evidence from public and private law contexts Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (published May 2020)

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