A VITAL contact centre where estranged parents can spend time with their children is under threat of closure because they are, once again, perilously short of volunteers.

When a marriage or relationship break-up turns sour, the non-resident parent can be left heartbroken and out in the cold when it comes to seeing their children.

Once communication has broken down, it can be difficult to organise a visit, and in the worst cases, accusations can be made and denying access to children can be used as a weapon to punish a partner.

But the only supported Family Contact Centre in Swindon has just seven volunteers left – and organisers are afraid this vital facility could be forced to close, with damaging consequences for warring parents and the well-being of their children.

Volunteer and former lawyer Fred Tucker said: “We need volunteers! That’s the critical thing.”

Fred has long experience of the value of the centre and used to refer people to the centre if a relationship was breaking down and a non-resident parent – most often fathers – were stopped from seeing their children by their former partners. The sessions are held in a room on the first floor of the Health Hydro in Milton Road.

“It’s been running for about 25 years,” he said.

“Angie Angus used to run it, and originally it was set up by the WRVS (Women’s Royal Volunteer Service). I semi-retired seven years ago, and I had some extra time so I decided to volunteer.”

The contact centre is a charity, and affiliated to Volunteer Matters, a national charity which helps the group with its administration.

“They are our back office, so to speak,” Fred explained. “Our coordinator is Carol Gerrard. We have no paid staff, though volunteers are paid expenses such as travel to the centre.”

The centre is of vital importance to parents and children at a time of crisis, but it costs only £7000 a year to run.

“It’s peanuts,” Fred said. “If we save just one case going to a full hearing that hearing would cost more than the money needed to run this place for the whole year – and we are helping 100 families every quarter.

“When a relationship or marriage breaks down, lots of other feelings come to the surface, and sometimes accusations are made.

“Sometimes a private, neutral place is needed where the non-resident parent – mainly dads – can see their children in a safe environment. And we support that contact.

“Being a volunteer involves arrived at about twenty to ten, getting some toys out, and when people arrive, you book them in.

“They can go into the main room and hopefully have an enjoyable contact session for up to four hours – then they go. It is not supervised, it is supported – it is a private, safe venue but we do not offer supervision.”

He said: “Hopefully it is successful, and people can move on. This is not a permanent measure, but temporary for parents. They can use us as a dropping off point, when parents do not want to meet.”

The contact centre facilitates parental contact with children ranging from young babies up to pre-teens, and while most of the children involved come from the Swindon area, the parents might come from a much wider area.

“One dad used to come here every month from Malta to see his children. We’ve had other parents come from northern France, South Wales and north east England. Geographically, the come from all over the place.”

To be a volunteer, you must be calm and non-judgmental, he said.

“You must be able to monitor the room and make sure everyone is happy, but you should not get involved in the interaction between parents and their children – that is their special time.”

The reward for the volunteers comes from seeing parents and children having a good contact experience and moving on with their lives.

“Because I have been involved for many years as a solicitor and as a volunteer, I can see the centre has an incredibly high success rate,” Fred said.

“There’s a little legal element to it I also enjoy, and you can see lots of positive outcomes. We do sometimes have people getting very upset – normally when they first start, and they may not have seen their children for many weeks or months.

“They may build up anxieties and need support and encouragement, and sometimes we have to encourage the children as well.

“Once contact has been established and they start to go regularly, then we can see the success – and that is exactly what we are aiming for.”

People can self-refer to the centre, and it has referrals from courts and health and social work professionals – but despite its valuable work, the centre is the only one left in Swindon.

“There used to be a mediation centre in Milton Road for many years, called Mediation Plus, which did supervised contact, but that depended on local authority funding and it shut two years ago.

“Social services used to do mediation but the plug was pulled on this, and they now refer people to us,” Fred said.

The Swindon Family Contact Centre raises its own funding. It gets various grants from local authorities, as well as donations from local solicitors’ companies. Users are charged an initial one-off registration fee of £50.

Potential volunteers will need to have a DBS background check, which is funded and organised by the charity.

“We need a minimum of 12 to 15 volunteers to be viable,” Fred said. “We are also facing the possibility of losing our venue if the Health Hydro is redeveloped, and at the moment is it very affordable.

“If we move on the rental alone could be £10,000 a year. This all depends on what happens at Milton Road.

“Nobody knows we are there – until they have a problem. One man said to me, if it wasn’t for you guys I would not see my kids.

“Our most important concern for now is finding more volunteers. It’s rewarding. It can be challenging occasionally when people get really wound up but that’s very rare. There are many good experiences and our success rate is brilliant.”

To find out more about volunteering, text Carol Gerrard on 07900 307348 or visit swindonfamilycontactcentre.org.