Programme Action – Slough Child Contact Centre
Making a Difference to the Lives of Children
Like a number of Soroptimist Clubs, various members had been volunteers at Child Contact Centres over the years. These centres were started to cope with the number of parents who were unable to have contact with their children after separation from their partner. Usually the problem was that there was nowhere suitable for fathers in particular to take their children but increasingly the issue was related to lack of trust between ex-partners and concerns over abduction of the children.
However some 16 years ago it was realised that there was a great need for a facility in the Slough area. Although there was a Child Contact Centre nearby in Maidenhead it was generally full with waiting lists. The club members agreed that it would be a good project to undertake as there was definitely a need and many members were happy to become volunteers and could do this as they would be needed on a Saturday and not a working day. It was felt that the project would have educational elements and would also link to health and issues regarding violence. Undoubtedly the work makes a difference to the lives of children.
Two club members looked for suitable premises, ideally with two separate entrances, a large room for the non-resident parent and children with room to play, a waiting room for the resident parent and car parking. Affordability was also a factor. Ultimately St Andrew’s Shared Church in Cippenham on the outskirts of Slough was identified and agreed. The church has a garden which is particularly enjoyed by families in the summer months. A budget was put together and then accreditation from the National Association of Child Contact Centres in Nottingham was sought. This entailed considerable paperwork which has grown over the years as each centre has to be reaccredited every three years. Currently there are twelve policies in place covering everything from Health and Safety to Whistleblowing. Volunteers had to be DBS checked and trained; initially training was fairly straightforward but now there are ten different modules which have to be covered every three years. A schedule was drawn up to ensure that there would be a Co-ordinator and six volunteers available for each two hour session. Toys were acquired. A website was set up, a mobile phone purchased and a leaflet produced.
Finally we were able to start in 2002. The centre is open on the first and third Saturdays of each month from 1pm to 3pm. Volunteers arrive at noon in order to prepare the rooms and need to tidy up at the end of each session. Initially all families were referred by solicitors via the Court service or by Social Services however this was later adapted to allow families to self-refer as many cannot afford the services of professionals. .
The service is provided free of charge to the families though donations are welcomed. Generally a grant is made available to the Centre via CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) but this is not guaranteed so the club has to ensure that it raises enough money to keep the Centre going. There is a Management Committee with a Chairman which meets four times a year to ensure smooth running. On a day to day basis one member acts as the Administrator of the Centre which entails receiving enquiries via telephone, post or email from non-resident parents or solicitors or various other professionals. Some of these calls can be quite harrowing when a parent is being prevented from seeing their child. Cases vary hugely as do nationalities; Slough is a very diverse area and it sometimes sounds like the United Nations on a busy day. In general there can be up to twelve families with maybe up to fourteen children on the Register. However, illness and holidays mean that it is rare for that many to arrive and seven to eight families is more normal. Sometimes grandparents seek contact and surprisingly often fathers who have never seen their child use the service. The reasons why the Contact Centre are needed are varied but sadly many cases involve substance abuse or violence so it can be quite a learning experience for the volunteers as well.
The Adoption Service also advises couples who wish to adopt to become volunteers so that they can encounter the complexities of children’s emotions in these frequently fraught circumstances. We have had several couples become volunteers for a year to gain experience in this way. During the last year 31 separate families were registered with the Centre. Two of these have been coming for more than one year but the majority came for six to eight sessions. In many cases the parents can see how much the children wish to see both parents and it enables them to move on to making longer term arrangements outside the confines and restrictions of the Centre. Recently a father who had recently been released from prison met his son for the first time in five years – the child was delighted to meet his Dad and the father was completely overwhelmed. Realistically they might not have met if we were not providing this service. It is incredibly rare for families to get back together though it has happened but we do feel that many children are able to have meaningful relationships with their non-resident parent as a result of our efforts and this is good for the community as well as the individuals.
In 2012 the Slough Child Contact Centre in association with two other local Centres became the very proud recipients of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service which was felt to be a considerable accolade. The sponsors for the award were a High Court Judge and our local MP, now Prime Minister, Theresa May. Her letter of support spoke of the important work undertaken by the volunteers for the benefit of families in the community. Fifteen years on, the Centre has opened on time for every session except one when the snow intervened. Club members feel they give service to the community in a very real sense. We estimate that we provide at least 750 hours of service each year.
The photographs show the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire presenting the Queen’s Award to Phyllis Sigsworth and Lea Jaycock who set up the Contact Centre with other volunteers and the Contact Room set up waiting for families to arrive.
Talking Newspapers for the Blind
Club members act as editors and readers for each of the following Talking Newspapers for the Blind on a regular basis; the USB sticks are created from the news in the local newspapers and are sent out to some 70 or so recipients in each of the areas. The service creates a lifeline to the blind and partially sighted.