Although the Scottish Government is starting to relax social distancing measures, many businesses and organisations have had to think creatively about how they can continue to deliver their services.
One such organisation is the Highland branch of Relationships Scotland. As a family law solicitor I have, like many of my colleagues across Scotland, been continuing to work closely with clients to help them resolve child contact disputes. These disputes have now, as a result of COVID-19, taken on a level of complexity in ways we have never seen before.
Many clients were using the services of Relationships Scotland – Family Mediation Highland (RS-FMH), before social distancing measures were introduced. All family law solicitors are aware of the important work carried out by their local child contact centres. In March 2020 the RS-FMH office/contact centre had to close, but it has continued working remotely, going above and beyond to initiate a means by which its staff can assist clients/service users, and most importantly children, as best it can in line with Government guidance. Here are some examples of what it has introduced:
- Direct contact from staff: Staff compiled a list of service users – those in greatest need of ongoing support – that a family support worker would call on a regular basis simply to “check in”.
- Advice for safe and successful contact: The service found that some families were able to organise their own arrangements to agree some kind of contact during lockdown. Staff assisted, where requested, by offering advice on how to manage boundaries, and ideas for how to make video calls fun and engaging for young children.
- Digital post box: Where direct communication between parents was not possible the service offered the use of its innovative “Digital post box”. This has enabled staff to continue to facilitate indirect contact between parents and children in the form of regular updates by video, photo and email. Resident parents send videos and photos of their children together with written or verbal updates. Non-resident parents can, in turn, send videos, photos and messages to the other parent for them to share with the child. Importantly, all content is screened by staff before being passed on.
- Observed video contact: The most recent addition to this evolving toolbox is the introduction of Zoom contact between child and non-resident parent. FMH hosts the call, and the contact details of both child and parent are kept confidential. Staff remain on the call throughout and intervene in any situation they decide is inappropriate, unsafe or potentially distressing for parent or child.
These additional services have been welcomed by family law solicitors across the Highlands. Service users have, similarly, provided very positive feedback to FMH and it is highly likely that some, if not all, of these services will continue to form part of the offering of FMH moving forward.
Margret MacRae, RS-FMH service manager, said: “I think we can all relate to how hard it has been not being able to see our families during lockdown. Whilst most parents wished for children to maintain a relationship with their other parent, the additional challenges and anxiety resulting from COVID-19 have made this even more difficult for some parents to arrange by themselves. Both resident and non-resident parents have shared how much the contact provided by these new services has meant to them and their children.”
On behalf of all of my solicitor colleagues across Highland, and the many clients and children who are benefitting from the efforts of Relationships Scotland – Family Mediation Highland, I want to express gratitude to Margret and all of her team for their incredible work during these challenging times.
Sarah A Lilley, senior associate at Brodies LLP and accredited child law specialist, with Margret MacRae, RS-FMH service manager