VOLUNTEERS at Swindon’s supported family contact centre fear that a new referral system could deter separated parents from accessing the service.
Swindon’s Family Contact Centre, based in Health Hydro in Milton Road, aims to provide a safe place for children to meet a parent seperated from the one they live with.
Staffed and run entirely by volunteers, it can be a lifeline for families who are struggling to reach a compromise after communication has broken down.
But a new online referral system introduced by the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC) has raised concerns that it excludes some of the most vulnerable parents and could have a detrimental impact on the children.
Angie Angus, secretary at the Swindon centre, said: “Some of the people who come here are illiterate, and it’s all very well saying that they can ask a friend to help them but they don’t want anybody to know about it.
“Then they have to do it online and some of them they don’t have easy access to a computer.
“It’s just another stumbling block for them, and all the while they just want to see their children.
“I think it’s going to frustrate a lot of people.”
Angie is also concerned that the upfront online £10 fee would pose difficulties for some people, who may be on benefits.
In the past, the Swindon centre could receive paper referrals from solicitors or parents who referred themselves and carry out their own basic checks at a pre-visit meeting.
But since they signed up for the online system on May 1 they have not received a single referral.
Angie said: “It’s not usual. We usually expect five or six people to call up each month and sign up.”
The new system was trialled across several centres, and now 53 of the 382 contact centres affiliated to NACCC have signed up to use the system, but Angie said that eventually all contact centres affiliated to NACCC would have to sign up.
She said: “In principle it is a really, really good idea. I know it will help to protect the children in the end and that’s what’s important.
“I am just worried about those people with computer phobia and everything else.
“If it wasn’t for that, or something could be done to help those people, I would be behind it 100 per cent.”
Elizabeth Coe, chief executive of the NACCC, said: “The new system means that referrals go through a central hub where they are vetted, and it’s to make sure that people won’t be a risk to others or to the children or volunteers.
“There are people who don’t have easy access to a computer but there are libraries that people can go to, and they can ask their solicitors to help them, and they can always go to the Citizens Advice Bureau for support.
“The initial £10 upfront fee only goes a short way to paying for the system. We are a charity and rely on donations, and the fee does not cover the whole cost. It’s a small contribution.
“We are still in the early stages and people need to let us know how we can improve it.”