ACCORDING to the Scottish Government, a third of children do not live with their biological fathers. Are you surprised? I’m not. And it is not just because of the work I do.
Think of acquaintances, close friends and even your own family. It is probably a fairly easy statistic to relate to.
Sadly, almost half of marriages now end in divorce and it is not uncommon for children to be part of a wider family of unmarried parents or step-parents, half-brothers or sisters and even step-grandparents. Every year, couples separate on relatively good terms and agree on how their children can spend time with both parents. But this does not always happen. For some children and parents, their relationship may never be the same again.
The way I see it, the traditional 2.4 children is largely a trend of the past. Non-traditional family set-ups will become the norm in future. Although we are getting used to these patterns through real life and on-screen replicas, the emotional process of a separation is still tough and can be especially difficult for children.
Historically, children generally stay with their mother. However, when a relationship breaks down, most people – parents and experts – believe it is important for children to be in touch with the parent no longer at home. Or, in some circumstances, a parent they have never met. Naturally, some find it very difficult to agree to share their children’s time. The child’s best interests are sometimes lost amidst the ill feeling.
Unknown to many, helpful hidden gems exist in Scotland. Mothers, fathers and grandparents – often the silent sufferers in a separation – can stay in youngsters’ lives without having to confront one another. The first Child Contact Centre opened in 1988 with a role described as “protecting children from parental conflict so the time parents and children do spend together is not spoiled by the display of hostile feelings between parents”. Now there are 45 centres in Scotland affiliated to the family support service Relationships Scotland. The remit hasn’t changed. I should know: I manage a contact centre. It is a cause I care very much about.
The child’s welfare is of utmost importance. The environment is entirely neutral, which means parents enter via different doors with no need to meet. And, despite potential stereotypes, it is a happy place. The hope is that, eventually, these visits improve relations within the family. The ultimate aim is to move on from the contact centre. It is all about structured collaboration between ordinary people. And at the centre of it is an important but vulnerable, confused and easily influenced child who didn’t choose to be there. Think what an hour or two in a relaxed environment with mum or dad means to them.
Last year, more than 2,000 Scottish children used a contact centre. This is a huge jump from just 1,400 two years prior, showing that these gems are perhaps not so hidden anymore.
I’m so proud of what charity VSA’s contact centre in Aberdeen has achieved. We give support, as opposed to supervision, so there’s no feeling of being watched. One service user, Shula, and her family were with us for two years. She admits that if it wasn’t for their time there, they would still be amidst court proceedings. Thanks to discreet but vital touches, such as separate entrance doors, the former couple have come to a mutual agreement. Now the children see their dad every second weekend.
Our volunteers are a godsend too. The centre is wholly run by them each Saturday. Some are drawn to the role having been through similar experiences. In fact, most parents mistake them for staff because they are so professional.
There’s no doubt about it: our 21st-century traditional families are here to stay. But services that support them need support of their own. VSA’s contact centre depends entirely on voluntary income. £21,000 is sought each year to improve the lives of unsettled children. Without such a special place, ties that are broken would sometimes never be repaired and children would grow up without knowing both parents.
Just because they are ordinary people, like you and I, in a situation that is so normal we’re oblivious, does not mean they could not use a helping hand. I want people to step forward and support a vital service that almost everyone in the country can relate to. «
• Cathy Maxwell is family support co-ordinator, Voluntary Service Aberdeen Contact Centre