By Gianna Huesch
Here in Australia, it is made clear in the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) that all children have the right to regular contact with both parents and other significant people in their lives, provided of course that it is in their best interests.
But ensuring this occurs in a safe and stress-free manner sometimes requires the intervention of neutral third parties, and courts formalise this by making orders for supervised contact between a child and their non-custodial parent, with the aim of minimising children’s exposure to parental conflict and unsafe situations.
The official services established to cater to this need are known as children’s contact centres, and they can be either Government-funded and run, or offered via private agencies. Children’s contract centres are purpose-built, child-focused venues designed exclusively to facilitate safe and positive interactions between children and their non-custodial parents. At children’s contact centres, specially trained staff offer services that either:
- Supervise the transfer of kids from one parent (or other family member) to another. This may be in a situation where there is significant conflict between the parents and having changeovers at a contact centre means that the parents do not come into contact with each other while still allowing the children to spend time with both parents.
- Provide supervision for the time the children spend with one of the parents in a controlled and neutral environment.
Supervised contact is typically ordered by courts in cases where there may be fears that a child will be abducted, where there is a risk of harm in the form of abuse or neglect, and in circumstances where the contact parent lacks adequate parenting skills to care for the child or has mental health or drug or alcohol abuse issues. The use of contact services is also ordered when a child is being introduced or reintroduced to a parent with whom they have not spent much time before. Depending on a court’s decision, contact can be supervised either by a person known to both parents (even by the custodial parent), or through a children’s contact service.
Staff at children’s contact centres observe the interaction between a child and his or her parent at all times, and when required, provide reports on the contact to the court. Such reports provide independent evidence to the Court to assist Judges in determining whether unsupervised visits should continue.
While the use of children’s contact centres is usually court-ordered, they can also be accessed voluntarily should parents feel there is a need due to high levels of parental conflict making shared care arrangements extremely difficult to manage without external help. Parents’ hostility and emotions such as anger or fear, can sometimes so interfere with shared care arrangements that in some situations, contact with a parent stops completely, which is detrimental to the child. Through making use of a contact service, however, parents do not have to deal directly with each other.
When orders are made through the courts, the supervision is generally fixed for a certain period of time, as it isn’t regarded as being in the child’s interests for the arrangement to continue for the long term. It is seen as a temporary solution rather than a permanent one. However, occasionally, contact will be ordered indefinitely, and in rare cases, on a final basis (until the child is 18). Where no end time is specified, orders can be varied upon application by the contact parent. Orders can also be varied if the contact service recommends doing so, and the parents agree. In this case, it is necessary to return to court for consent orders to be made. It will also be necessary to return to court if a court order expires or if the service you are using is unable to continue to provide its services. Note, courts will only make consent orders that are in the child’s best interests.
The ultimate aim is to support and encourage positive interactions and strengthen the relationship between the child and contact parent. As time passes, parents are assisted in moving towards self-management of the contact arrangements.
Use of a children’s contact service is not free, but there are options for those on low income or who may be experiencing financial hardship. Fees are normally shared between the parties. Unsurprisingly, private agencies are more expensive than the Government-funded centres.
For more information about children’s contact services, you can call the Family Relationship Advice Line on 1800 050 321 or visit Family Relationships Online at www.familyrelationships.gov.au.
Do you need assistance with a family law matter? Please contact Cristina Huesch or one of our solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400—your first no-obligation conference is free.
(Please note: Our blogs are not legal advice. For details about how to obtain correct legal advice please arrange a free conference with Alliance Family Law.)