Cover photo of Social Policy Journal

Australian and New Zealand Assiciation of Children's Access Services

First National Conference 15-17 October 1994, Adelaide, Australia

Brenda Pilott
Manager, Family Violence Unit
Department of Social Welfare

The first national conference of the newly-formed Australian and New Zealand Association of Children's Access Services aimed to provide a forum for service providers to share information, for researchers to discuss recent research findings, and for a range of relevant legal and welfare issues to be discussed. It also focused on refining draft standards being developed for children's access services.

Three New Zealanders attended the conference: Jill Henry and Marin Adams, who established the Care for Kids centre in Auckland, and myself. Principal Family Court Judge Patrick Mahoney, in Adelaide for a family law conference, also attended several sessions and was invited to close the conference.


The conference was timely in view of proposed changes to the Domestic Protection Act and the Guardianship Act in New Zealand. One of the key aspects of these changes is a clearer recognition of the impact on children of witnessing or being directly involved in family violence between the child's parents. A likely consequence of the new approach to family violence will be an increase in the number of orders made by the Family Court for people who have been violent within their families to have access visits with their children under supervised conditions only.

Supervised access is at a later stage of development in Australia, relative to New Zealand, and provides an opportunity to examine and learn from the experiences of a range of Australian models of service delivery. New Zealand has only a small number of access services at present. The Care for Kids Centre on Auckland's North Shore was the first significant service providing supervised access. Barnardo's has been involved for a number of years in supervised access services and has recently opened centres in Porirua and Christchurch, with further developments planned in Palmerston North, New Plymouth and possibly Auckland. Other agencies provide access services on an ad hoc basis, but most supervised access in New Zealand takes place on an informal basis, mostly using family members.

The conference provided an opportunity to consider a range of key issues to be explored as these services are further developed in the near future in response to legislative changes. These issues include: the role of access services; family violence, safety issues and access services, whether access services should be involved in risk assessment; access services and the Courts, especially in relation to reporting and evidence giving; service delivery issues; and national standards for access services.

The Australian and New Zealand Association of Children's Access Services

The Association was formed in April 1994, following a national gathering of community access centres in Launceston, Tasmania, attended by representatives from all the Australian states and territories and from New Zealand.

The Association aims to (a) develop minimum operating standards to promote best practice and to assist funding criteria; (b) collate and disseminate information; (c) advocate for the provision of access services and encourage government funding; and (d) provide a network for those involved with operating services.

The Australian section of the Association is strongly based, but the New Zealand section is less so. There is no New Zealand network of access service providers, and input to the work of the Association and the development of standards has been provided on an individual basis only.

The Role Of Access Services

Access services tend to focus on two key components: supervision of "hand-over" of children between the custodial parent and the non-custodial parent for the purpose of court-ordered or mutually agreed visits; and supervision of the access visits, generally because a court has ordered this for safety reasons. Access services in Australia provide one or more typically, both services.

Robert Ludbrook represented many speakers' views when he made the point in strong terms that whilst parents and others may benefit, the core of the service must be for the child's benefit.

Dr. Kathleen Funder from the Australian Institute of Family Studies talked about the role that access centres can play in "parenting after separation", especially at times of maximum conflict between parents, notably the immediate aftermath of separation. Access centres can play a role in providing a neutral space for parents to continue their relationship with a child with whom they no longer live. In so doing, they may also have the effect of reducing conflict between the parents, to the benefit of the child.

Owen Pershouse, who has been closely involved with establishing a centre in Queensland, described the service as providing "corridors of access" for children between the separate environments of their parents; and seeking to prevent or moderate the intense pressures experienced by families, and especially children, as they adjust to a post-separation way of life.

Family Violence, Safety Issues and Access Services

Service providers have raised concerns about the safety both of children and custodial parents – in the cases cited, invariably mothers – when using access services. Safety issues for children include the risk of sexual abuse or further sexual abuse and other kinds of physical harm, threat of abduction, and being subjected to intimidation or emotional abuse. The safety of the child's mother may be threatened when access visits or hand-over provide further opportunities for an abusive ex-partner to inflict physical and emotional harm and to exercise continued control and domination. In many cases, the children are used as a vehicle for the abuser to pressure or threaten his ex-partner.

There was a clear consensus amongst speakers and delegates that there should be no prioritising of any person's safety over that of another, and no person's safety should be compromised by access decisions. Clear direction was given by conference delegates that procedures to ensure, as far as possible, the safety of both the custodial parent and the child should be preconditions to access services being offered.

Access Services and Risk Assessment

One of the key debates centred on the role, if any, access services undertake in assessing levels of risk to a child from access visits with a parent who is or has been violent or abusive within their family. Risk assessment is one of the key factors in determining intake policy, levels of supervision provided, operating procedures and planning of access visit programmes.

The Association's draft standards outline three types of models of service delivery: preventive/early intervention, enabling/problems established, and security/severe difficulties. These three models describe a continuum of least to most risk and, consequently, assume differing levels of supervision. All three models are based on the assumption that access centres can reasonably determine whether there is a risk to a child from involvement in supervised access, through advice or direction from courts, the custodial parent or other sources. The fact that access has been ordered under supervised conditions implies a level of risk that the centre must seek to manage through its security, intake and operating procedures.

The Care for Kids centre was established from a different philosophical basis, namely that access centres should not be regarded as assessment centres. Jill Henry and Marin Adams presented a paper which talked about a "myth of certainty" which they believe has evolved whereby some professionals believe they can know with certainty whether abuse has taken place. In fact, they say, it is clear that much abuse, especially sexual abuse, remains undisclosed or undetected for many years. Services should, therefore, let the benefit of doubt fall on the side of the child's safety. Centres should be neutral, but neutrality does not imply denial or minimisation of risk, or the possibility of abuse having occurred and being allowed to occur again. The implications of this approach are that all procedures assume a need for strong safety procedures and that no differentiation is made between cases.

Access Services and the Courts

Justice Nahum Mushin, an Australian Family Court judge, issued a strong challenge to the courts in their thinking about, and decisions on, access in cases involving family violence. He expressed a view that judges should be more robust in considering "no access" as an option where there has been family violence, and that there should be no question of permitting access, even under supervised conditions, when sexual abuse has been proven to have occurred. In Justice Mushin's view, the test for judges in their decisions on custody and access decisions should be a consideration as to whether access, supervised or otherwise, is providing a positive benefit to the child.

The Hon. Alastair Nicholson, Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, in his keynote address, stated that judges should use a "moderate threshold" when determining risk. Both judges alluded to difficulties in making such determinations, given the role – shared by the New Zealand Family Court – of maintaining the family and endeavouring to ensure children have contact with both parents. A further difficulty arises in making judgements when allegations of abuse are undetermined pending final hearings.

The other key theme involving the relationship between access services and the courts concerned the role of staff in providing evidence or reports to the court. There was some difference in practice evident from reports from various services. Some refuse to be involved in reporting to the courts in any capacity whatsoever, believing this compromises their role as a neutral service. Others will, on request, provide factual statements drawn from observation and written reports compiled after each access visit. The majority appeared to be in the category. Some Centres did not preclude the possibility of providing expert testimony, in addition of factual statements. Further debate will not doubt take place as to the role of centres in this kind of assessment and reporting, and the impact this might have on the concept of centres as neutral places.

Service Delivery Issues

Presentations by a number of access centres highlighted service delivery issues that are likely to be debated in New Zealand as access services develop. Key issues include:

  • Who pays? Some services are free to users (the Salvation Army-run service in ACT is one example of this), although most charge a fee to the visiting non-custodial parent.
  • Who funds? Most run on a mix of user charges (the "user" being the non-custodial parent), government funding and sponsorship from umbrella organisations. No service is fully funded from user payments. In Australia, non-profit organisations have been at the forefront of access service delivery, principally Save the children Fund, Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul.
  • Location. Most use centres that are designed for a different purpose but which are available at weekends, when most access visits occur. Typically, early childhood centres or neighbourhood houses are used. All centres aim for a homely environment and (generally) unobtrusive security. Providing a range of activities suitable for all age groups is a difficulty, especially for older children.
  • Role of supervisors. Their key role is to facilitate the interaction between parent and child and to model appropriate behaviour. Most also undertake intake procedures, maintain records and attend to a range of administrative tasks.
  • Volunteers or paid staff? In practice almost all centres use a mix of paid and unpaid staff. Most, however, see this as a response to funding shortages and not a desirable or preferable feature. The Toowoomba Centre in Queensland has a commitment to ensuring continuity of care and believes this can only be achieved by ensuring that paid staff work with families.

National Standards

The conference provided a key opportunity for delegates to debate issues that have arisen in the course of drafting national standards. The draft standards cover purpose, principles, when supervised access should and should not occur, structure of services, administrative functions, operational issues such as premises, security, supervisor-to-child ratio, fees, role of the staff, intake procedures, operational procedures, confidentiality, reports, and relationships with external agencies.

As well as providing guidelines and minimum standards for the operation of services, the Standards are intended to "be attached to government and non-government funding criteria."

The standards have been developed largely in the Australian context, although input has been provided on an individual basis from New Zealanders involved in the Association. The Standards will require specific input from New Zealand service providers to ensure consistency with out legal systems, cultural mix and patterns of service provision and funding. It seems likely that separate standards will need to be developed for New Zealand, to stand alongside the Australian standards.


The conference was timely in view of the likely increase in demand for supervised access services in New Zealand and provided an opportunity to learn about a range of models of service delivery and to hear debate on philosophical and policy issues.

For service providers, issues around models of delivery, levels of supervision, minimum standards and operating codes will be debated and tested. The debate could be facilitated by the development of a network of New Zealand service providers linked to the Association.

From a New Zealand perspective, one of the key issues in the current development of supervised access services is resourcing and where the responsibility for that lies. Clearly, both Justice and Social Welfare have an interest and non-government organisations have already begun to develop services in response to an existing need. That need is likely to multiply significantly following the changes to legislation and pressure will develop to ensure that access services are available within a relatively short time.

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 03

Australian and New Zealand Assiciation of Children's Access Services

Dec 1994

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