Following the breakdown of a relationship, it is important that parents attempt to make appropriate agreements for the care of their children, particularly their ”live with” arrangements and their ”spend time” arrangements (historically called ‘’custody’’ and ‘’contact’’ or ‘’access’’, respectively). When parents are unable to communicate directly with each other, or there are fears about the safety of a child or a parent, the family may be able to use a Children’s Contact Service to permit a continuation, or resumption, of the child’s relationship with both parents.
Children’s Contact Services (CCSs) are specialist family services designed to provide a safe setting for children to spend time with the parent they do not live with, or through which to facilitate the changeover and change back of children between parents at a neutral and family-friendly venue. Facilitated changeover permits spend time arrangements to occur without the parents having to have direct contact with each other; such a simple mechanism is all that is required in some cases.
Indeed, CCSs fulfil a critical role in the family law system as they are the practical means by which children can continue to know both parents and have contact with each parent when the parents are unable to ‘self-manage.’ The majority of clients that use a CCS are involved, or have been involved in a parenting dispute in Court. The services may, however, also be used as part of an early intervention strategy alongside family mediation (known as ”family dispute resolution”) before either parent starts a court case.
Most CCSs are situated at dedicated contact centres across greater Sydney, Melbourne, other major cities and regional centres. There are also some privately operated services that provide supervised visitation in public areas, for example, parks, playgrounds and shopping centres. Most sessions range between 1 to 2 hours in a dedicated contact centre, or up to 3 or 4 hours if supervision at a public place is being facilitated by a privately operated service.
The key objectives of a CCS are to promote the best interests of the child, balancing the objectives of the child’s right to know and be cared for by both parents with the importance of promoting the safety of the child. A further objective of a CCS is to educate and support parents to self-manage their own parenting arrangements in a safe and child-focused manner over the course of time. This last objective is called ”capacity building” by family relationship specialists.
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the circumstances in which families might use CCSs include:
Where one or more of the above issues exist, the supervised interventions at the CCS may act as a functional mechanism to satisfy the other parent (and in some cases the Court) that there is no unacceptable risk to the child of the child transitioning to unsupervised spend time arrangements. Most CCSs provide reports of contact visits that can be requested or accessed by each parent after the arrangements have operated for 4 or 5 weeks. Feedback is generally given verbally to each parent during or at the conclusion of each session.
In most cases, supervised contact is considered as a last resort and subject to it being in the best interests of the child. It is also commonly understood that supervised contact at a CCS is not a viable long-term option for children to spend time with a parent (unless it is only once or twice each year for what is referred to as ”recognition or identity contact”). In practice, courts are reluctant to make orders for indefinite supervised contact due to the negative impacts this may have on the child.
When a court orders a parent to have supervised contact, or the parents agree to use a CCS, the CCS must first assess whether the family is “suitable” to use the service. A government-funded CCS has obligations to many children and families that use its services, and to its employees, so each child and family is carefully assessed before they are offered a place.
Parents are taken through an intake process that involves a separate interview with each parent and the identification of any risk factors associated with their situation. Risk factors may include drug or alcohol use, history of violence including family violence, capacity to take responsibility for behaviours, presence or absence of family ties and supports, and the health needs of family members.
A CCS may consider a family unsuitable for the service in some circumstances; for example:
There are three types of CCSs available to families, depending on where they live and their financial ability. They are:
Fees for these services are subsidised and most also provide other post-separation services such as counselling and parent education programs. At present, the wait times can range from 6 to 12 months from the time of registration to being able to access the CCS.
These services are mainly operated and run by non-government organisations. The waiting times are significantly less than for government funded CCSs, however they can be expensive over time and unaffordable to some parties requiring such services.
Some private services provide CCSs from dedicated centres and others provide supervised visits in public areas such as playgrounds and shopping centres. These are generally expensive and can become unaffordable over time.
Due to the significant wait times for subsidised services, families need to choose the right CCS for them and make contact with the service as soon as possible (particularly when using government funded CCSs) to avoid delay.
Refer to the Australian Children’s Contact Services Association website for more information about the location of CCSs.
Government-funded CCSs include the following, by way of example:
* The asterisked services also offer a full-fee paying option.
For privately operated services, see the ACCSA website for a list of services in NSW (services in Victoria are also available but yet to be listed).
It is noted that discussion continues within the family relationships sector about the development of industry-wide accreditation standards for personnel who work within CCSs. We anticipate that existing standards and protocols followed by the various community-based organisations that operate publicly funded CCSs will be unified and made the subject of industry standards within the next 2 years.
The solicitors in our Family & Relationship Law team assist clients with all types of parenting matters, including those where consideration of a children’s contact service may be desirable or necessary. Please phone one of our partners in our Melbourne or Sydney offices to ask if we can help you or someone you know. The partners in our Family & Relationship Law team are Rose Lockie, Jason Walker, Jodylee Bartal and Paul Lewis.
Paul Lewis, Partner
Carolina Arricobene, Lawyer