A FAMILY contact centre in Swindon under severe financial pressure has been thrown a £10,000 lifeline by the Wiltshire Community Foundation.
The Swindon Family Contact Centre provides the only way dozens of estranged parents can see their children regularly. Each Saturday between 10am and 2pm more than a dozen parents, the majority of whom are fathers, are able to spend up to four hours with their youngsters.
Parents going through divorces and unable to agree if or when they have contact with their children are referred to the centre, based at the Health Hydro in Milton Road, by family courts and solicitors but it receives no state funding and has to raise its £8,500 yearly running costs itself.
The £5,000 funding over two years means it will be able to employ co-ordinator Carol Gerrard, who currently gives her time for free, on a part-time basis.
Fundraiser Fred Tucker, 69, a retired solicitor in the town, said: “The funding is great because it gives the centre breathing space and some certainty. We are always on a knife edge with funding, but this will allow us to employ our co-ordinator part-time.
“That will enable us to offer a far better service and it will be better for Carol because at the moment she is giving up 15 hours a week of her own time, which is a huge commitment, and we simply couldn’t operate without her.”
He said the centre, which helps more than 150 families a year, is seeing demand increase because legal aid for family cases has been cut and estranged couples cannot afford to resolve custody issues in court.
The National Association of Child Contact Centres says more than 40 centres have closed in the last five years with countless more reducing their opening to twice monthly, despite their value to society in general and the legal system in particular.
Mr Tucker said: “I am sure that if dads didn’t have the contact here, they’d be going round to their ex-partner’s house, bashing on the door and demanding to see their child and then the police would be getting involved. We are preventing all of that, we are saving money. If we save one case going to a full hearing, that saving is more than it costs to run this place for a whole year.”
The centre, formed by the WRVS 30 years ago, relies on volunteers to keep going. Mr Tucker said: “We do have a problem with recruiting volunteers. When I started here nine years ago, we had 15 volunteers but now we are down to nine. It’s very difficult to get people to give up four hours on a Saturday. I can understand why because people just don’t have the time.”
The only government funding is £2,800 a year from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. “We charge a one-off fee of £75 to parents but we have to pay rent, volunteers’ travel costs, phone costs, stationery, renewing toys, training and IT,” said Mr Tucker. “And now we have to pay £645 for data protection registration as well.
“The solicitors in Swindon are very good because I know them. If I send an email round asking for money, they’ll donate some. South Swindon Parish Council are very generous to us too, but we are living hand to mouth. It may well be if we continue to have problems with money, or recruiting volunteers long term, we may have to cut back and only open once a fortnight.”
Wiltshire Community Foundation Chief Executive Rosemary Macdonald said: “It is clear the Swindon Family Contact Centre provides a wonderful service that does a great deal to help keep parents and children in touch, which is of incalculable benefit to both. We are absolutely delighted to help keep it going because that’s what we are here for, putting money into where it is most needed in Wiltshire.”
Mr Tucker said: “We are so grateful to the Wiltshire Community Foundation for this money because it is going to make a big difference to families in Swindon.”