A woman whose ex-husband had a domestic violence order in place against him was shocked to discover he was able to open his own children’s contact service business, she has told ABC, raising concerns over lack of regulation of the children’s contact services industry.
The family courts regularly make orders for parents to have supervised contact with their children at children’s contact services centres, but these can be either government-funded or privately-run . Only the government-funded centres are subject to any kind of regulation, via a set of guidelines used by the courts. On the other hand privately-run services “are subject to no government oversight, regulation, accreditation or any requirements of accountability whatsoever”.
As the nation grapples with how to reform the family law system, this is one of the safety issues that was raised in the Australian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry and led to its recommendation that the Family Law Act be revised to ensure children’s contact services are accredited.
The courts order children’s contact services to be used in cases where there are concerns over parenting, whether there are abuse issues or the parent has mental health problems or has alcohol or drug issues. They are also frequently used as a neutral and safe changeover point for parents sharing custody.
Because of demand, there are long waiting times for government-funded children’s contact centres which has led to an increase in privately-run contact centres being established. The Australian Children’s Contact Services Association (ACCSA) estimates there are 85 to 100 private service centres around Australia, compared to 65 government-funded services.
The government-funded services must adhere to a national framework of guiding principles and administrative guidelines so that they can receive funding. These principles define standards relating to “staff training and ratios, record-keeping, safe environment provisions and confidentiality”.
When making court orders for referrals, the family courts use the guidelines to determine whether the proposed centre is able to offer the necessary supervision, whether it has relevant age-appropriate facilities and any security issues. But the Federal Court of Australia’s spokesperson told the ABC that it was also influenced by the proposals put before the court “by the parties, their legal representatives or the Independent Children’s Lawyer”.
ACCSA spokesperson Michael Cross told ABC that “unlike government-funded services, privately operated services were unregulated, and despite staff often having to deal with highly stressful, complex family disputes, they required no relevant qualifications or even blue card accreditation”.
Mr Cross also raised concerns over the environments provided by privately-run centres, which are not always in a “dedicated, secure environment” but can often be in public settings such as parks or shopping centres.
The woman who has made the claim about her ex-husband running a children’s contact service says:
“I was absolutely shocked as to how someone with not only a domestic violence order against them, but also breaches as well, was able to be supervising other abusers. I think there’s a conflict of interest in that he could be supervising other cases with a very lenient eye, as he has stipulated many times that women make false accusations simply to get their children.”
She says she tried to report her ex-husband to ACCSA but was informed about the lack of regulation. ACCSA says despite the constant complaints it has received over privately-run centres “it had now had to shut down community access to the association” because it was unable to handle the volume of complaints, and had no investigative powers nor any authority to impose sanctions or resolutions. The non-profit says it is encouraged by the ALRC recommendations which are in line with the position ACCSA holds, namely arguing for improved oversight and accountability. Mr Cross said:
“We’re seeing court orders and referrals to some services that do not comply with baseline standards and, in the association’s opinion, can place children and family members at risk and further their emotional trauma or vulnerabilities.”
Law reform is being urged to amend the legislation so that organisations providing children’s contact services are actually accredited. The attorney-general Christian Porter is currently considering the ALRC review recommendations.
Do you need family law advice? If so, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.
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