In the 12 years that the Gosport Children’s Contact Centre has been open, Gerry Williams has seen all sorts of people walk through the doors.
Whether they’ve strolled in voluntarily, or been ordered to attend by a family court judge, they’ve all got at least one thing in common.
All these parents have got personal experience of the pain and heartbreak caused when a relationship falls apart.
And quite often, that’s etched on their faces for all to see.
But as they push through the double doors that lead into the main hall, the scene they’re greeted by is usually one of joy.
Toys are scattered all over the floor, biscuits are in the process of being squashed into the carpet – and parents who have been desperate to see their children are loving every single minute of it.
‘We give them total freedom here and it’s usually very relaxed,’ explains Gerry, a trained counsellor who has been involved with the contact centre since the beginning.
‘Recently we had 25 children here and probably 22, 23 parents. The only rule is don’t turn up on drugs or drink and don’t carry on other issues that you’re having with the other parent.’
He adds: ‘The families who come to us are looking for help in a lot of cases but haven’t found it by any other means, which is why we do our best to help them in whatever ways we can.’
Between July 2010 and July 2011, the contact centre was used for more than 380 visits between parents and their children. That was a record number and showed a steady increase that Gerry believes will only continue to rise in the future.
The recession and high unemployment figures have put a strain on many families who were already struggling to make ends meet. And that’s only likely to get worse in the lead up to Christmas, as mums and dads already at loggerheads find the burden of money worries and job stresses take a toll on their relationships.
High-profile mums like actress, Kate Winslet, have spoken out about the importance of trying to keep things civil during a divorce for the sake of the children. But that’s often easier said than done when you’re dealing with the raw emotions and recriminations that surround divorce.
Gosport Children’s Contact Centre is based at the Methodist Church in Stoke Road and there are similar facilities like it in Havant and Portsmouth too.
Couples who are divorced or separated and unable to agree on giving an ex-partner access to their children, attend sessions here. The parent with custody will drop the child off to the centre and either wait around or go home.
Meanwhile the visiting parent can go into the main hall and spend two precious hours playing and talking to their children.
‘We have always offered a totally free service to families who use it for contact,’ explains Gerry. ‘That was part of our ethos from day one and always will be.
‘We are generally the last line on the road towards divorce and separation. Where there are remaining outstanding issues that haven’t been able to have been amicably agreed, it will be about the children. So the parents will come to us as a matter of agreement between solicitors. If that’s not been achieved then it’s very often by the issuing of a court order.
‘There are so many emotions that can be involved in this situation. One of the questions we ask is “Are the parents prepared to come into contact?”
‘Many times they don’t even want to be on the same planet as each other but because of the arrangement of the rooms here, we can organise it so that they don’t have to meet.’
When the facility was first set up in January 1999, the volunteers were trained by the National Association of Children’s Contact Centres. While there were other centres in Portsmouth and Southampton, it was felt that the Fareham and Gosport area had fallen into a bit of a black hole.
In more recent years, the centre has been adopted by the church as part of its social responsibility programme and
as well as the contact sessions, counselling and mediation services are also on offer for a fee.
‘We don’t do as many sessions as we would like to be able to do,’ adds Gerry. ‘I would dearly like to be able to offer three or four sessions a week but it’s one session every fortnight on a Saturday between 2pm and 4pm.
‘During those two hours the building is secured. We know who is coming in and out to protect the privacy of those people using the contact centre and to ensure that nobody goes missing with the children.
‘We couldn’t operate if we couldn’t be trusted. The children are going to be safe here and people can talk to us about issues. It’s crucial that we’re totally impartial and listen to anybody.’
In the last 12 months, the volunteers who help run the sessions have seen more mums take on the role of visiting parent but it is predominantly dads who rely on the group.
The number of families using the service is definitely going up though – and Gerry thinks that will continue in 2012.
‘It’s a steady increase and my own personal view is that we’re going to get even busier because that’s where society is going,’ he adds.
‘There’s a whole spectrum of success and failures that we have through here. The success for us is that a family comes here for a period of time, then goes away having agreed access to the children between themselves and we never see them again.
‘It doesn’t always work like that. At the other end of the spectrum we’ve had people who’ve quite blatantly ignored court orders and not turned up.
‘But when they see what it is that we do, they tend to relax a little bit more. It’s amazing to see so many dads who are so dedicated. We’ve had people travel from Wales to attend sessions.’
For nine long, hard months, Dave* couldn’t see his two young children.
And the pain that caused him was almost too much to bear.
Depressed, divorced and alone, he was desperate to see his son and daughter who he’d been living with until his marriage to their mum broke down.
He finally got what he longed for when the family court ordered his ex-partner to take their children to the Gosport Children’s Contact Centre.
Now he’s hopeful that the once a fortnight sessions will turn into more.
Dave, who lives in the Portsmouth area and has asked to remain anonymous to protect the identity of his children, says: ‘My ex stopped me from seeing our children so when the court said we had to go to the contact centre it was great.
‘It’s a nice atmosphere. All the kids are running around and playing. It’s a shame that they don’t have more toys and it would be nice if people could donate some more but the dads and other parents take in their own as well.
‘It means a lot to me, seeing my kids. I want to see them growing up properly and be able to talk to them and find out about what they’re doing at school.
‘It’s a relaxed atmosphere at the centre. When you get into the main hall the kids have a great time.
‘Sometimes it’s not the dad’s fault that the relationship’s broken down but it’s still the dad having to pay. It was awful not seeing my kids for nine months. I wish I could see them a lot more but at least at the contact centre I do get to see them.
‘They run up to me and say “Daddy”. It’s really nice when they do that and you can look into their eyes. They ask me what’s going on and ask why they can’t stay over at mine. It really hurts. But at least I’m seeing them once a fortnight now.’
* Names have been changed.
TIPS FOR PARENTS
Going through a divorce? Relate has these tips that might help you and your children:
* Children will be better able to cope if their parents can be seen to share the responsibility for their welfare. So, telling them together about when and what is going to happen, will show to them that you can still be Mum and Dad even though you are not together as a couple any more.
* Whilst you want to be open and honest with the children, try to keep in mind what they can cope with at their different ages. They do not need to know every single detail about what has gone wrong, nor should they be involved in any conflict between you and your partner.
* Try to keep as normal a routine as possible going. When the routine has to change, introduce the changes as slowly as you can and talk them through with the children.
* Remind them that you will always be their parents even though you may not wish to be a couple any longer and reassure them, that it is not their fault that you have decided to divorce – this is between the two of you.
* Do everything you can to help yourselves adjust to your new situation especially, if you are the parent with residence.
* Reassure them that you have decided to separate from each other but not from them; you are still their parents. Do not put them in a position where they have to choose between you.
To find out more about the Gosport Children’s Contact Centre log onto gosconcen.btck.co.uk or call (023) 9242 9342.
To find other centres log onto naccc.org.uk or call the national helpline on 0845 4500 280.
For enquiries about Relate Portsmouth call (023) 9282 7026 or log onto relateportsmouth.org.uk