Child 'contact centres' under threat in Wales, warning
Centres helping keep children in touch with their parents after family break-ups are under threat of closure in Wales, says the body running them.
The National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC) claims changes to the legal aid system has led to fewer referrals.
There are fears that could mean centres become unviable.
The UK government says it will work with NACCC to "raise awareness" of the work the centres carry out.
According to NACCC, numbers using its services have fallen markedly in the past year.
Four centres in south Wales helped 415 families in 2010-11.
But in the six months from April to September this year, the same four centres had just 74 referrals.
"The problem is if the numbers drop too much - which in some places they are - the centres will cease to be viable, and the sources of income then will dry up and the centres will close," warned Pauline Lowe, the Wales network manager for NACCC.
"And although that's not happening in Wales at the moment, we certainly have some evidence that in England a number are closing."
What are contact centres?
Contact centres are a neutral, safe place for a child to meet their father or mother after they have split up.
Sometimes they are used if communication between the adults has broken down or if the child has lost contact with the non-resident parent.
They are also used when a parent has a mental health illness or a substance abuse problem.
There are 23 contact centres across Wales accredited by NACCC.
Some offer supervised contact and others are supported contact only.
Families are mostly referred through lawyers or the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).
NACCC's Wales manager said contact centres had a positive impact for children going through an emotionally traumatic time.
"They can do less well at school. They can have behaviour problems," she explained.
"They can suffer from anxiety and certainly girls when they're older may have more difficulty with their own relationships. Boys the same, they have behaviour problems and so on."
Nathaniel Phillips from Rhydfelen is 19 years old. He has a five-year-old daughter and comes to a contact centre every week to see her.
"I was 14 when I had her and access stopped about six months later because we split up," he said.
"[The staff] come in and help and check if everything is all right regularly."
"We play with colour and play with games and it helps with the stress because we're not around her mother and we're not arguing and it's easier for my daughter.
"They're really important for people in my situation to have contact with their children."
Leah Rhydderch, a solicitor with Watkins and Gunn, said a change to legal aid was one reason why the numbers had reduced.
"I know about some contact centres where the councils have cut funding for them and secondly it's a vicious circle in terms of the legal aid cutbacks, people not going to solicitors because they can't have access to legal aid."
Without legal advice or Cafcass intervention, people are not finding out about the centres, said the solicitor.
Cafcass has seen case referrals drop, but it claims that is due to better recording of figures across contact centres and clear referral clarity from Cafcass Cymru.
The UK's Ministry of Justice says it recognises the "valuable service" carried out by NACCC.
But justice minister Simon Hughes argued: "It is not necessary to use a lawyer, or to make a court application, in order to use a child contact centre.
"We will work with the National Association of Child Contact Centres to see whether more needs to be done to raise awareness of the role of child contact centres and how to access them."