Prior to the Children Act 1989, few courts appeared to attach enough importance to children staying in contact with the parent who was forced to leave home, and they were reluctant to enforce access orders. Some parents went to prison for obstructing contact, but there were grave misgivings about the effect of this on the children and their relationship with the other parent.
" a) a probation officer to be made available; or b) a local authority to make an officer of the authority available, to advise, assist and (where appropriate) befriend any person named in the order." [Children Act 1989, section 16(1)]The people who may be named in the order are parents, guardians, people with contact orders or those with whom the child lives, and the child himself. Thus a welfare officer could befriend a child in order to help him regain a healthy interest in a parent or other relative. Such an order may be made for a period of up to six months but only if the court is satisfied that the circumstances of the case are exceptional. Unfortunately the Act does not define these circumstances, so we must look elsewhere for guidance.
"... aimed at giving essentially short-term help to parents or spouses to cope with the immediate problems arising from their separation or divorce, to smooth the transition for them and their children, to promote arrangements for access where these are in dispute, and generally to facilitate co-operation between them in the future."
" It may be made when the child, and his family, require expert help to deal with problems arising out of the family situation, for example a traumatic separation or divorce in which the child, or his parents, are having difficulty in coming to terms with the breakdown in relationships. The assistance given would be aimed at preserving or promoting the child's relationship with his parents, or other members of the family from whom he might otherwise become alienated..."
[extract from section 3.25 of "The Children Act 1989 - a procedural handbook" by P M Harris and D E Scanlan, published by Butterworths]
But no progress can be made without the agreement of the welfare officer or social worker involved; and that may be difficult if there is inadequate funding or training for this sort of work. It is always worth swallowing some pride if you can show that you are someone worth helping - these officers are after all the eyes and ears of the court and frequently what they say goes.
In extreme cases a Supervision Order (s 31) may be more appropriate, but that is the subject of a separate article.
Originally published - May 1992