Supervised contact: The views of parents and staff at three Barnados Contact Centres

Supervised contact: The views of parents and staff...
01 Aug 2006

This report explores the findings of a study on the views and experiences of parents and staff involved in three supervised contact centres – Oamaru, Invercargill and Dunedin – in the southern region of New Zealand, carried out in late 2005.

The study was funded jointly by the Families Commission and the University of Otago, in collaboration with Barnardos, the main non-governmental organisation in New Zealand providing supervised contact services.

‘Supervised contact’ allows for a child to see a parent or other significant carer in a safe and controlled environment. Over 40 supervised contact centres exist in New Zealand. While some limited previous research had been undertaken on parents’ views of contact arrangements (Chetwin, Knaggs and Te Wairere Ahiahi Young 1999; Jolley 1999) this study was designed to explore the operation of supervised contact centres from the perspectives of parents and supervisory staff. Apart from parents’ views, a gap identified in previous research was the need to explore staff practices, which help families cope with supervised contact and move towards other arrangements.

This report was produced for the Families Commission Blue Skies Fund by Anita Gibbs and Margaret Mckenzie of the Department of Social Work and Community Development, University of Otago.


This report presents the findings of a study on the views and experiences of parents and staff involved in three supervised contact centres in the southern region of New Zealand, carried out in late 2005.



The researchers gained ethical approval from the University of Otago and a Memorandum of Understanding from Barnardos to approach parents and staff through centre co-ordinators. At the time this study was conducted there were approximately 53 families accessing Barnardos contact services over the three centres. We interviewed 12 participant parents who were from 10 of these families. So, while this study has a small sample size of parents, nevertheless 12 from a population of 53 is a fair sample size. Of these 12 participant parents, six were in visiting parent roles and six were in day-today caregiver roles.1 Of the same 12, 10 were birth parents and two were Child, Youth and Family (CYF)-initiated foster-parents.

Data were also collected from 13 Barnardos staff who comprised the three centre co-ordinators and 10 supervisors. One key informant from a Ma- ori social service provider was also interviewed in order to provide further understanding of the provision of culturally appropriate services. The total number of participants was therefore 26. The six caregivers were all female and all New Zealand European in ethnicity, and ranged in age from early 20s to early 50s. Three of the visiting parents were male and three were female; four of these were New Zealand European and two Ma- ori in ethnicity. They ranged in age from early 20s to early 40s. The children visiting the contact centres ranged in age from two years to 15 years. Parents and caregivers were interviewed either by phone (four people) or face-toface (eight people). Interviews were transcribed and sent back to participants for checking before being analysed. In addition to the parents, the three co-ordinators from Oamaru, Dunedin and Invercargill were each interviewed individually and 10 other staff who were contact service supervisors participated in a two-hour focus group. Of the 10 contact supervisory staff, eight were female and two male; all co-ordinators were female. All participants consented to involvement in the research. Data were collected from September 2005 to December 2005.

Key Results

While a study with this number of participants must necessarily be described as small-scale, it nevertheless does provide considerable in-depth knowledge on the provision and experience of supervised contact services. This study found that for this varied group of parent participants the provision of supervised contact reassured parents, whether day-to-day caregivers or visiting, that safe contact could be achieved where previously conflict and violence had been present or feared.

The service enabled safety to be assured for caregivers and children, and for visiting parents reassurance that their concerns to see their children were taken seriously. It clarified that while visiting parents felt somewhat challenged by the supervised contact process, most were determined to see their children and prove they were not ‘bad parents’ who need to be controlled. We found that all parents were committed to making supervised contact work, as were the staff. Parents valued contact services, especially the work done by co-ordinators. The staff made every effort to include all parties and to understand their different perspectives. Staff commented that not everyone could be the focus of the service, and that the child came first. On discussion in the focus group, staff were aware that this child-first focus did not always fit with a Māori worldview and were keen to explore other arrangements for culturally appropriate supervised contact for different groups. Minor criticisms of the service included: some of the rules and their application or lack of application; the lack of off-site supervision or provision of additional support programmes; provision for older children; and lack of detailed feedback to caregivers about visits. Overall, the service provided by Barnardos for supervised contact arrangements was highly valued by this group of caregivers and visiting parents. Parents also reported that their children valued the service and described situations where children moved from initial apprehension and unwillingness to looking forward to the contact visit and spending time with their visiting parent.

Staff identified the strengths of the service as being the child-focus, the provision of contact to people who would not have seen their children otherwise, and seeing children develop positive relationships with the visiting parent. They identified that the specific approach of a child-led service required a set of specialist skills within a general focus of neutral support and role modelling of parenting behaviour. Relationship skills of encouragement, non-judgementalism and support were central in carrying out these complex roles and tasks. Additionally, areas for further and future service development were identified.

A six-month funded project constrains the scope and depth of a project, as recruiting a sample of this nature requires ethical approval and appropriate consultation before sampling can even begin. However, a range of different participants’ views was achieved and the major themes of the topic have been explored. These factors should be borne in mind when making policy and practice changes based on the study results alone. Our study, along with the other previous New Zealand and international studies, adds to the cumulative evidence of research material on the practices and experiences of supervised contact services.


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