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Child Contact Interventions: An Underused Resource

Gabrielle Jan Posner, barrister of Trinity Chambers, Chelmsford, argues for the greater use of child contact interventions in appropriate circumstances.

Gabrielle Jan Posner, barrister and recorder, Trinity Chambers, Chelmsford

Gabrielle Jan Posner, Barrister and Recorder, Trinity Chambers Chelmsford

Before the child arrangements programme came into being, there were already on the statute book section 11 and sections 11A to 11P of the Children Act 1989. From 8 December 2008 onwards courts dealing with private law children cases have been able to make contact orders enforceable and to add contact activity directions and contact activity conditions. How often the courts actually do make activity directions and conditions and how many people have ever been made to do unpaid work for breaching contact orders, I do not know.

In my experience, these measures are pretty rarely employed, largely because they come at a cost. Therefore unless the local Cafcass office has a funding arrangement in place with a provider, the chances of an activity direction of condition being made, let alone getting Cafcass to monitor it and report on compliance, are slim.

There is one well-known exception, namely, the SPIP (separated parents' information programme). This comes within the definition of an activity direction / condition. The popularity and availability of SPIPs is not surprising: they are a one-off event for half a day in a group setting targeted at improving communication between separated parents. I have been to observe one in my capacity as a Recorder and thought it was very interesting to watch the group dynamics and the responses and body language of the participants. They were sharply divided between those who had gone with a good heart and those who were there only because the court had directed their attendance. A 4-hour programme is not going to undo ingrained patterns of behaviour, but it might just give some people food for thought about different ways of dealing with parenting issues.

Not that this is very scientific, but the rarity of contact activity directions and conditions is, to my mind, exemplified by the fact that I had to check the difference between a direction and a condition and whether the word "contact" had been dropped / replaced in the wake of the child arrangements programme.

The basic difference is that a direction is made whilst the case is ongoing whereas a condition is attached to a final section 8 order. Therefore, as practitioners, if we are going to come across something of this nature it is more likely to be an activity direction because the objective is for something to be tried out and a report made before the court finalises the case. Sections 11A to 11H of the Children Act 1989 now refer to activity directions and conditions and the word contact has, indeed, been dropped.

It is probably a mercy to the English language that they are not now called "spend time or otherwise have contact with" activity directions and conditions. Nevertheless, before the change of terminology it was quite clear what the purpose of these provisions was and that they were designed to help parents maintain contact with their children and improve the quality of that contact. That purpose has not, of course, changed, but I do wonder whether their rather non-descript label together with increasing budgetary cut-backs has pushed them even further out of practitioners' and the courts' consciousness. When you are dealing with an intractable contact dispute, is the first thing you think of an activity direction?

If you are fortunate enough to be in an area where Cafcass does have a funding arrangement in place with a provider, the most effective sub-species of activity direction I have come across is the child contact intervention. I assume it is now called a child intervention, but I have found myself unable to use that phrase for fairly obvious reasons so the last order that I made was phrased as an activity direction directing the family court adviser to make a referral for a child contact intervention to be funded by Cafcass and to report back after the work was completed.

Essentially a child contact intervention (CCI) enables Cafcass to fund up to 12 hours of work, usually with a local specialist resource. How the time is actually used will depend on the needs of the family. There will ordinarily be an introductory meeting at which some ground rules will be established and then a number of sessions followed by a next steps meeting. The sessions might take the form of a series of supervised contacts where there is feedback afterwards about what did or did not go well and suggestions about ways to improve things. Alternatively, where there has not been any contact in some time or contact has broken down, there might be individual meetings with each of the parents and the children looking at how contact can safely be reintroduced and ways to break an impasse.

The idea is to enable the family to start working together and managing contact arrangements independently in the future. The resource may provide progress sheets which they make available to the parties as they go along or at the end of the work, or the family court adviser (FCA) may just summarise the work undertaken. The resource itself does not provide a formal report and its staff will not come to court unless there are exceptional circumstances. The FCA will prepare a section 7 report at the end with recommendations for the future; and if it turns out that any aspects of the CCI are contentious, questions will need to be directed to the FCA.

In my experience the efficacy and success of a CCI depends on a number of factors starting, obviously, with Cafcass having in place and maintaining a funding arrangement. I was involved in a case in which I was aware that during the previous financial year a particular resource had been available, but by the time it came to considering a CCI in the present case, Cafcass had stopped commissioning that resource.

The other factors include:-

  1. The calibre of the workers at the resource
  2. The work put in in tandem by the FCA
  3. The terms of the referral – the resource should not ordinarily be provided with the court papers so the referral form completed by the FCA needs to cover the issues comprehensively
  4. The willingness of all the family members involved to use this opportunity to change things
  5. The stage at which the CCI takes place – if it is left too late there is a tendency for everyone to go into it feeling cynical and jaded.

My experiences are based on courts in London and various parts of the South East. I have seen some surprisingly effective results. For example, a little girl who used to cower in the corner and wet herself when her father arrived to pick her up was transformed when her mother came to appreciate that if she did not give her daughter genuine permission to go with him and to enjoy herself it would only rebound on her in the longer term. In another case a shy and sensitive teenage boy, who was worried about his health and enjoyed playing in the school orchestra, and his father, who liked outdoor activities and might best be described as a 'manly man', were helped to communicate better so they could tell each other what they wanted and needed from the relationship. The particular joy of that case was to see at the final hearing following on from the CCI the transformation in the parents who had bickered and sniped their way through the first hearing.

On the other hand, I have also seen a couple of abject failures where the reluctant party was just going through the motions or using the CCI as an excuse to say, "I told you it wouldn't work, but at least I tried" when they patently did not. One memorable example was a mother who had worked her two pre-teenage daughters into such a frenzy before they even got through the door of the resource that they started screaming at their father as soon as they saw him. In some six hours of attempted contact only about 30 minutes was achieved.

Nevertheless, the good, in my experience, has far outweighed the bad and the ugly because a CCI is intended to be tailor-made to the needs of the particular family.  It inevitably comes at a cost because one is buying in time and expertise. Nevertheless, I think it is worth it when in the hands of experienced, insightful and shrewd practitioners, outcomes have been achieved which I would never have imagined possible.

Cafcass produces a very useful online summary – available here. This has links to documents downloadable as PDFs including a fact-sheet, the full guidance and a resource pack, as well as the Commissioned Services Directory of Resources which sets out what is available across  the whole country (the latest version is April 2016). To my mind the secret of success is getting in early before attitudes become entrenched and the CCI will become just one more in a line of attempts that have already failed. A practitioner can always take the initiative and ask the family court adviser at the outset to report on the suitability and availability of a child contact intervention so that, if it is an option, it can be utilised as an aid of first, rather than last, resort.