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Child Contact Interventions

Adrian Barnett-Thoung-Holland, barrister of St Alban's Chambers, explains the practicalities of a valuable resource for children lawyers.

Adrian Barnett-Thoung-Holland, barrister, St Alban's Chambers

Adrian Barnett-Thoung-Holland
, barrister, St Alban's Chambers

The mechanism of Child Contact Interventions is a rare and precious resource when it comes to Child Arrangements Orders. Child Contact Interventions can have an incredibly positive effect in Private Children proceedings, yet are restricted in application. This is to the detriment of many children in so-called "intractable hostility" cases.

Practitioners may find that there is some lack of clarity as to how to address and deploy Child Contact Interventions. The following is designed as a useful piece of guidance to assist court users who are unfamiliar with this excellent resource.

What is a Child Contact Intervention?
The programmes are usually structured systems deployed to reintroduce children to non-resident parents. There are other applications of the Child Contact Intervention, but this is the most common. 

The Core Assets service provider sets out this useful summary on its website:

'Child Contact Interventions are aimed at encouraging parents to listen to their child's views and to approach contact in ways that meet the child's needs. There are several types of interventions available, these include preparation of a child for contact, work with parents to prepare for contact, intervention and observation of contact, sustaining contact and indirect contact. This menu of interventions allows Cafcass Family Court and Advisors and Core Assets Children's Services contact staff to plan a bespoke programme appropriate to the families' individual needs.  Trained and dedicated staff work intensively with each family and the Cafcass Family Court Advisor for a short term period with a focus of supporting parents to manage contact in a safe way creating a positive experience for the children involved.

Subject to risk assessment, services can be centre based or external, such as a Cafcass office, during community activities or within the visiting parents' home, allowing for the flexibility to support families in various setting and enabling them to move on in a safe and supported way.

The interventions will support parents and children, giving them ideas to enable and sustain safe and beneficial unsupervised contact, establishing a way forward without the need for longer term court intervention.'

Although CAFCASS involvement remains in place in the lifespan of the programme, it is not specifically a CAFCASS service. The programmes are typically provided by an independent CAFCASS approved provider. CAFCASS provides funding for this service for up to 12 hours. In my experience, interventions of this type are designed to be 8-10 weeks in timescale for a reintroduction of contact for the children. However, since any such programme is subject to the individual provider's availability and local resources, it could conceivably be longer or shorter depending on the needs of the children involved, and how well the parties can address the issues. When one considers that 12 hours of sessions over an 8-10 week period amount to approximately 1.5 hours of contact per week on average, this gives us a good idea of what to expect.

The beauty of the programme is its flexibility. Nearly all such interventions commence with a mediation-style discussion with the parties to set out the needs and processes which the Child Contact Intervention programme will involve. This allows the service to be infinitely flexible to the advantage of the parties and of the children. It also minimises the need for discussions and negotiations at court hearings in respect of interim contact. This allows the parents to more easily take a "self help" or collaborative approach to contact. The process is assisted by consistent communication with the parties to encourage them to address the matters in issue between themselves. That extra element of involvement and monitoring is of vital importance.

There is also a data gathering aspect, whereby a family court advisor assists with the production and evidence gathering process over the programme. This can lead to the creation of reports and updating information. Of course the efficacy and helpfulness of any information can vary from case to case.

Procedural issues
Some procedural points are worth noting. An intervention may follow an initial recommendation in a CAFCASS s.7 report. Alternatively the intervention may be proposed and agreed between the parties, with a s.7 report to follow after the lifespan of the programme. Depending on the practitioner's own judgment, and given that CAFCASS involvement is retained throughout proceedings, an addendum s. 7 report can often assist, depending on whether the parties are in a position to resolve the outstanding issues themselves throughout the programme. It stands to reason that if the parties are able to identify and isolate a specific resource, a s.7 report should follow. There are, in short, a variety of places where the programme can fit into existing CAFCASS involvement.

Another key point is that CAFCASS needs to agree to fund the programme, which can be offered at safeguarding or at s.7 stage.

The programmes are usually interim in nature. It would be odd (but not impossible) for a Child Contact Intervention to be a final order. Certainly, as a final order, much would depend on the capability of the parents to make the arrangements work. A final order based around a child contact intervention would naturally be imprecise and perhaps unhelpful to resolving proceedings.

The main barrier to Child Contact Interventions as a potential mechanism to resolving proceedings is availability. They certainly are available and can be found; but not as easily as they probably should be. Curiously, many "ordinary" contact services which do offer such programmes, do not actively publicise that they offer them (or may not refer to them as such or may describe them in different ways). Practitioners should be aware that providers can be contacted for more specific information to see whether the particular provider's services are able to meet the recommendations in the case.  As is the case in all interim contact scenarios, the specifics must be clear to all parties.

For example, most providers are built inside of an existing contact centre service; that means what is on offer remains limited to what that contact centre offers. For example, a particular contact centre may have restrictions on their days or times of operation.

Practitioners should establish what the nature of any local arrangement before putting forward the possibility of a Child Contact Intervention, and ensure at the very least that the scope of the programme is known as far as possible.

Other difficulties that arise are typically those which are inimical to any procedure of interim contact: lack of commitment, continued acrimony and so forth. The continued involvement of CAFCASS does help to ameliorate such issues to some extent.

The most effective procedural approach to Child Contact Interventions is to build them inside existing models of activity directions. The current pro-forma CAP forms present a rather confusing either/or structure of Activity Directions:

B39 Activity Directions
You ** must attend the following activity programme on the dates and times to be confirmed by the activity provider, and in any event by **

a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM)
a Separated Parenting Information Programme (SPIP)
a Domestic Violence Perpetrator's Programme (a DVPP)

(a) The court shall send this order to the activity provider with the parties contact details.

(b) The activity provider must notify the court whether the parties attended at the conclusion of the activity directed.

(c) CAFCASS must monitor compliance with the activity direction given above and report to the court in the event of non-compliance.

It is readily apparent to the keen observer that the pro forma direction does not fit well with the structuring of a Child Contact Intervention; particularly in circumstances where the programme is not specified by structure or name,
The simple direction compelling the parties to attend the programme tends to add an increased layer of fogginess to the terms of the order. In the case of more exact programmes with clear structures and systems, one might be tempted to reproduce, literally word for word, the outline of the programme for clarity's sake. That too can be a hazard if the programme's exact details are not known, or if the programme were to change and develop.

I would err on the side of caution and encourage practitioners to seek a sensible balance. It does not help the provider at all to be excessively prescriptive in setting out the terms of interim arrangements in a system which by its personality and nature is intended to remain quite flexible for the parties and the children. To simply order attendance on an ill-defined programme can lend itself to either non-compliance from one party, or general lack of clarity for the parties.

This can often be compounded if CAFCASS makes a recommendation initially for a Child Contact Intervention and combines a general recommendation of the programme within their ordinary recommendations without full knowledge of the available resources.

Common sense rules the day here. Rather than become fixated on the minutiae of the arrangement, it is preferable to establish clear boundaries; timeframe for example is critically important and that can be defined with certainty eg:

"The parties shall attend a Child Intervention Programme facilitated by the Abacus Contact Centre for a period of at least 12 weeks in line with the CAFCASS recommendation set out in the report of 15th February 2018."

If the CAFCASS recommendation either specifies a timeframe for the programme or else the author knows what the local provider has to offer, this can be added to the direction itself, thereby preventing any confusion as to what the impetus for this particular suggestion might have been.

If you find yourself in a situation where the proposed programme offers no specific shape or structure, it is best  to direct as much of the CAFCASS recommendation as possible, while ensuring that it is still communicated as a recommendation and that the denominator will always be what is made available by the provider. Being too vague can generate significant problems regarding the parties' expectations.

It is always best to allow for contingencies. Experienced practitioners are well aware that contact centres can be an ephemeral and unpredictable resource in many ways. Generally, the referral process is similar to most ordinary contact centres but it is vital that enquiries are made as to availability and timing as with any other interim contact. The usual caveats on the delay between a referral and commencement of contact is also relevant.

In the main, Child Contact Interventions prove highly effective when deployed. The parties feel very much more in control of the procedure for "time spent" and feel an engagement with the contact centre rather than viewing the locale with trepidation. There are numerous tales of children in both "intractable hostility" cases as well as cases where there have been long periods without contact for children.

It is strongly advised for practitioners to consider whether Child Contact Interventions are appropriate for their cases and to seek out local providers; these can have a dramatic difference on many cases.