Norwich church project provides vital family link
For more than ten years, Norwich pastor Michael Graves and his wife Joan have spent their Saturdays running a Contact Centre at a Norwich church, providing secure facilities for children to meet with family members they no longer live with. Helen Baldry reports.
The St Mary’s Contact Centre – one of four in Norfolk - is held every other Saturday at Norwich Central Baptist Church, and provides a neutral ground for a child to see their non-resident parent. This is a supported service, staffed by volunteers on a rota basis, as opposed to a supervised service, usually staffed by social workers who formally oversee the contact.
Michael is pastor of Gage Road Chapel in Sprowston and Joan helps to run the toddler group and luncheon club at the church. The Contact Centre opened in 1999, under the auspices of the Council of Churches and was initially financed by grants and donations - many from local churches, who are also a source of volunteers. Michael and Joan first became involved in 2004 – originally as occasional volunteers. Two years later Joan took on the co-ordinator’s role and Michael became the administrator. Michael and Joan are now looking at stepping down after several years running the Centre, during which they have helped an estimated 400 families.
Michael said, “Mostly we see dads - but, on occasion it is the mum who, for one reason or another, has had to leave the family home. And we have very occasionally had grandparents who have had had to go to court for the right to see their grandchildren. In any of these instances, the child or children and the visitor may not have seen each other for several months or indeed years. On the other hand, it may be grandparents who bring a child to meet up with their non-resident dad, for example, because mum may not want to put herself in the position of being anywhere near her ex-partner.”
The Contact Centre is not a drop-in; all families have been referred to the service by a third party, usually a solicitor. Joan’s role as co-ordinator involves accepting the referrals and keeping records for each session.
Before each session, the room is set up with toys and games in readiness for up to 30 children to have some quality time with the parent they will sometimes only see for those few short hours once a fortnight.
The children range in age from a few months to early teens. Some families come for just a few weeks; others meet at the Contact Centre for over a year. The average stay is about 6 months. In total, around 50 families attend the Centre over a year, with 20-24 families each week.
Joan said, “We aim for a calm atmosphere and always begin each session with a short devotion and prayer time with the volunteers. We offer light refreshments and a listening ear, but have to remain neutral as we cannot be seen to 'take sides' with either parent.”
Michael said, “We hope and pray that the families will move forward in their relationships. Sometimes there are complaints too but, as you can imagine, emotions run very high in some of these family situations.... overall it is rewarding to see parents really engaging with their children, to hear laughter and to see families now able to communicate again.”
“In an ideal world, we would not need Contact Centres, but I often have to admit that it's not an ideal world so we are pleased to be involved in supporting the families that we have known over the years and thank God for his presence and sustaining support during the time we have been involved.”
Some comments from families who have used the Contact Centre
Without the centre, contact would not have happened
Excellent service for people in difficult situations
Handovers were very difficult away from the centre
The value of the support has been life-changing for my family
Pictured above: Michael and Joan Graves and below with Chloe Smith MP and some of the volunteers.