Children of separated families have a life-changing opportunity to maintain contact with non-resident parents in a discreet place full of toys, games and activities for young people of all ages.
A cross between a playgroup and a youth club, the Chichester Child Contact Centre (CCCC) is based at Christ Church, Chichester.
The CCCC puts the needs of children first and never takes sides, reports on parents or allows discussions to develop into arguments.
For three hours on alternate Saturday mornings, it welcomes families with children aged from 10 days to 17 years. It includes a room set aside for activities for older children, as well as a protected nursery corner for tiny tots.
The aim is to give parents time for fractured relationships to heal, so children can have positive relationships with both parents.
Coordinator Kathleen Davies said: “It provides a time out for neutral, safe fun and, importantly, children like coming. We try to take the pressure off very intense parenting, which can use children as a football or as a means of pressure between parents. Instead, it’s a place for children to play in an environment that is calming and very informal.”
Grandparents are also welcome: “We have noticed an increase in the number of grandparents coming to the centre, most with the non-resident parent but occasionally in their own right.
Safeguarding issues are paramount: “If there are any issues – most of which are drug- or drink-related – or there is neglect, or if the non-resident parent is showing any signs of not coping, we can stop them before the child even sees them and we can monitor this as they go along. Then, hopefully in a few weeks, but anything up to about six months, we encourage both parents to think about moving away – for example for half an hour to have an ice cream.
“Eventually, people move on, they go out for two or three hours with the idea that they go off and do their own thing.”
The CCCC has had the thumbs-up from parents and official bodies.
“All of the evaluation forms that we’ve had have been positive and both parents have appreciated what we’ve done.”
Kathleen said it is important to get the word out about the charity’s services: “Now that legal aid funding has been so heavily reduced, many separated families are not aware of what we do or how to contact us.”
‘Funding is a concern’
The Chichester Child Contact Centre (CCCC) depends on the goodwill of reliable volunteers.
CCCC coordinator Kathleen Davies said volunteers undergo a three-year cycle of training, incorporating 10 modules ranging from safeguarding to the repeating cycle of domestic violence and health and safety.
Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes and are there to attend sessions, listen and keep an eye on the children. They range from adoptive parents, sent by Social Services to get some experience of children, to retired teachers and nurses, plus people who are unemployed and want to boost their skills, stay-at-home mums who want to get back into work and use the CCCC as a stepping stone, Samaritans, former foster parents and youngsters who want to gain experience.
“Currently, we have two graduates from Chichester University with a degree in Early Years. They can use their experience and training with us to good effect when applying for paid child care work.”
Prior experience is not necessary, but the ability to get on with resident and non-resident parents is key. The CCCC is always keen to welcome more volunteers, who receive ‘tremendous advice and support’ from the team in situ, as well as the charity’s body of trustees.
“We also get very good cooperation from Social Services, local solicitors and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), who are very willing to help if we need advice and, although it’s very rare, we also get instant advice on taking things forward from the police.”
Funding is an on-going concern. This year, a generous donation from the Bassil Shippam Trust and £444 from the June 2018 Waitrose token scheme has helped keep the ship afloat: “Christ Church has supported us in keeping room hire costs stable but, at £150 per Saturday three-hour session this eats into current funds. We have a one-off referral fee of £50 which can be waived in hardship cases; many of our families fall into this category. There’s very little government funding and even Cafcass we have to apply for. We try to keep topped up so we know we can run for a year, as court orders are, at the very least, for six months, so we can’t suddenly shut.”