Overview of the Contact and Residence Disputes (CRD) Service

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The Anna Freud Learning Network spoke to Shadi Shahnavaz, Social Worker & Family Therapist, and Judy Henry, Family Therapist, both from the Centre's Specialist Clinical Services, Trauma and Maltreatment (STAMS) unit regarding the role of the Contact and Residence Disputes (CRD) Service as part of our Spotlight on Improving Systems and Decision Making.

What does the CRD team at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families do?

The Contact & Residence Disputes (CRD) team is a multidisciplinary team that specialises in assessing and treating families where there is chronic litigation between separated parents around the residency of and contact with their children.

This may include cases where there are allegations of domestic violence and/or abuse of children. The conflict can often obscure the needs and experiences of the children, who many not have seen the non-resident parent for a significant period of time. Many parents seen by the CRD team have a history of mental health difficulties and there is often a history of Social Care involvement due to child protection concerns.

What are the different specialisms within the team?

Child and adult psychiatrist, family therapists, Clinical psychologist, social workers

What does the CRD team’s model of ‘therapeutic assessment’ involve?

‘Therapeutic assessment’ aims to re-establish positive contact, where appropriate, with the non-resident parent which has three main components:

  1. Improving both parents’ capacity to understand what is going on in their child’s mind, and protect them from the parental conflict;
  2. Gradually ‘de-sensitising’ the child to the non-resident parent with the support and encouragement of the resident (primary) care giver;
  3. Co-constructing with both parents a coherent ‘narrative’ around family events which is acceptable to them both and which they can then share with the child (Asen & Morris, 2016).

Is there any evidence that this approach has been successful?

For those families seen by the team for therapeutic intervention between September 2015 and August 2016, contact with a non-resident parent was re-established in line with court recommendations in 22 out of 24 (92%) of cases.

Can you describe a ‘typical’ case, where there have been positive outcomes for the children/family?

We were jointly instructed by Mr and Mrs X, a divorced couple with a ten-year-old girl A, who had not seen her father for four years. There had been numerous allegations and counter-allegations regarding physical violence, intimidating behaviour and mental illness, leading to the father being arrested by the police on many occasions (in all cases, charges were dropped). The Judge ruled, following a Fact Finding, that no violence had occurred. The mother did not accept the Fact Finding. There was an ongoing dispute about money; Mrs X claimed the father had failed to provide maintenance. Mr X said he had provided maintenance in the past but is unable to do so now because he is bankrupt. Child A was scared of seeing her father, believing that he was violent and frightening.

We met with the parents individually and with child A both individually and with her mother. Our work with the parents focussed on helping them explore what might be going on in their child’s mind and how their ongoing conflict might be impacting on their child. Our work with the child focussed on understanding what her ‘reality’ was in terms of her beliefs and fears about her father. In addition, we explored with child A what positive memories she may have had with her father and helped her to connect with those experiences.

The de-sensitisation programme began with helping the father make a video message for his daughter. He brought along three objects that would provide positive memories of their past relationship (e.g. a photograph of a trip to the seaside and talked about each of them in turn. We showed the video to the mother for her approval and then as part of a joint session with Mrs X and her daughter Mrs X showed her the video message. Although Child A refused to see the video, we supported Mrs X to encourage her daughter to watch it.

The next stage involved a joint session with the parents to prepare for contact (sometimes it is not possible to have both parents in the same room, due to their entrenched acrimony, and in these cases we adopt ‘shuttle diplomacy’ whereby we take messages back and forth between the parents). As with every contact, before the first contact we met with the mother and child to prepare the child and ensure that the mother was giving positive and encouraging messages to her child. We also met individually with the father to help him think about what might be going on in the child’s mind and therefore how to best engage with his daughter.

Despite the mother’s encouragement, the child presented as upset and anxious at the thought of being in the same room as the father and so the first contact involved the father standing at the end of the garden. Child A was able to look out of an upstairs window at her father below. This made her feel more secure. Over the next few months, the contact progressed to the point where the child could tolerate the father being in the same room, with the mother present. The mother played an important role - we encouraged the parents to have a civil conversation with the mother telling the father news about their daughter – thereby role-modelling that her father was not a threat. It took several individual sessions with the mother for her to understand and accept why this was important.

The child began to answer the odd question from her father but would never look at him. She was angry and accused him of hurting her mother. We helped the father to acknowledge his daughter’s pain and anger in order to begin to repair the relationship. Alongside the contact, we worked with the parents to construct a narrative about the past which was acceptable to them both. Once this was agreed, we supported the mother to relay this narrative to the daughter. The child went through a period of being confused because this narrative differed from what she had been told previously by the mother, and had many questions. We supported the parents in how to talk to their daughter and help her make sense of what happened.

Child A was soon able to be in the room with her father and a clinician, but without her mother. After a while, contact moved out into the ‘community’ and discussions were had with the parents about who could supervise contact instead of the clinicians. The mother agreed to the paternal grandmother and, after a couple of contacts with both a clinician and the grandmother present, contact took place in the community without the clinicians. In cases such as these, we often recommend continued supervised contact because of the risk of future allegations.

How can a referral/instruction to the CRD team be made?

Referrals are made through the CRD Administrator Marianne McGowan. When we receive a referral, we discuss it in the team and send out an estimate for the proposed work. We take a case on a first come first served basis.

References: Asen, E., & Morris, E., (2016) Making contact happen in chronic litigation cases: a mentalising approach. Family Law, (46), 511-515

Related content

Click here to read 'What happened next? A study of outcomes for maltreated children following care proceeding' by Gerry Mulcahy

Click here to read the Learning Network's profile of the Family Assessment Service (FAS)

Click here to read Dr Eia Asen's 'Families: Finding Clear Narratives and Rewriting Endings' blog contribution

Click here to download the Centre's STAMS booklet