4. The impacts of formal supervised access
Seven providers of supervised access services were interviewed in the five districts covered by the research. They gave information on aspects of their service, including referral, intake, the structure of the service, and funding.
Initial enquiries to a supervised access centre came from a range of sources, including either the custodial or non-custodial parent, the counsel involved with either parent, or Counsel for the Child. Parents could come to the centre as a result of a court order, before or after court proceedings, after counselling, or as a result of a voluntary agreement made between the parties.
The usual intake process involved separate interviews with the non-custodial and custodial parents, interviews with the children, and a familiarisation visit to the centre. Some centres would also make contact with both counsel for the applicant and respondent, and with the Counsel for the Child if one was in place. At the intake interview, some centres asked the non-custodial parent to explain why access was being supervised, and to tell centre staff of any court orders in place, in order to ensure that the non-custodial parent acknowledged their abuse.
The intake interview was also the opportunity to explain the centre's contract and to seek compliance with the rules it contained. The contracts generally contained clauses relating to the primacy of the safety of the children; types of behaviour that would not be acceptable within the sessions; policies relating to gifts, physical contact, alcohol and drugs, photographs, visits by other family members; and the conditions under which access would be terminated. Policies for the recording of information about the visit, and conditions under which this would be provided to counsel or the court would also be spelt out in the contract.
Structure of the sessions
Timing: sessions ranged from one two hour session a fortnight to four two hour sessions a week. One centre held a session incorporating an evening meal. Another centre provided individual supervision outside of the centre at any time.
Arrivals/departures: all centres staggered arrivals and departures, so that the children arrived 15 minutes before and left 15 minutes after the non-custodial parent.
Length of supervised access period: the length of time during which access was supervised for any one respondent ranged from three months to two years.
Staff ratios: staff ratios ranged from one-to-one, to one supervisor to three parents.
Age range: some centres stipulated an age range, such as four to eight years, and others considered age on a case by case basis. One centre had children ranging from 15 months to 17 years.
Caseloads: caseloads at the time of interview ranged from one family to 21 families.
At the time of interview in 1997, none of the centres received government funding for their supervised access services. By the follow-up survey in 1998 some centres were receiving a small amount of funding from the Community Funding Agency. (In 1998 CFA joined with CYPFS to become The Children, Young Persons and their Families Agency.) All centres either charged a fee or suggested a donation. In most cases these were graded at $10 per session for Community Services Card holders, or beneficiaries, and $20 per session for others. Most centres found it difficult to obtain this money from the non-custodial parent, and at least one centre would reluctantly terminate the service to a family if payment was not made. All centres stated they were subsidising the service from elsewhere in the organisation, or from fundraising. The centres saw funding as a major issue to be resolved with government, particularly as benevolence could not be maintained in the face of expanding demand for the services.
Relationships with courts
In the follow-up survey in 1998, supervised access providers reported that the Family Court was developing a protocol with service providers and in some areas regular meetings were taking place between the centres and the local Family Court Co-ordinators.
The parents interviewed who had experienced formal supervised access described regular sessions at a formal supervised access centre. For one family access was supervised in the non-custodial parent's home by a professional supervisor from a local service. In this case the custodial parent brought the children to the gate where they were met by the supervisor. The following table gives the proportion of families using formal supervised access over time.
Table 15: Use of formal supervised access over time
Percentage of families
After Protection Order
At 3 months
At 6 months
At 9 months
Length/time/frequency of formal supervised access
Formal supervised access tended to persist for longer periods than other types of access, with an average period of 20 weeks. In some cases the court or the centre required that formal supervised access was limited to a set number of sessions or amount of time, typically six months, when it was expected that the arrangements would be reviewed. Formal supervised access was likely to occur regularly in weekly or fortnightly sessions and was most likely to last for two hours.
Custodial and non-custodial parents were asked whether the children were safe in formal supervised access, whether there were any other problems for the children, and whether they thought that having access supervised was safer for the children than it would be if access was unsupervised.
Most custodial parents were sure that having access supervised meant that their children were safer from physical harm or abduction than if access had been unsupervised. Some spoke of the risk of harm during routine care.
Apparently there is a lady per father per child who sits right next to them and watches them and [non-custodial parent] doesn't get to change her nappies or do anything to hurt her. (O) (In order to ensure that the ethnic backgrounds of the parents who were interviewed are visible, ethnicity is recorded at the conclusion of each quotation. (NZE) denotes New Zealand European; (M) denotes Māori; (PP) denotes Pacific Person; and (O) denotes other ethnicity.)
A few custodial parents felt that their children would only be safe with no access. These parents were concerned about the potential for physical harm even with the supervision at a centre. One parent believed that the non-custodial parent could potentially carry a gun into the centre. Another was concerned that the non-custodial parent could pass on his contagious disease to the child. Another was not convinced the centre staff could always protect her child.
I still don't understand what would happen though if he did decide to get angry; I don't know how four women are going to protect [child]. (NZE)
Despite general confidence in the ability of the formal supervision to preserve physical safety of the children, a number of custodial parents were fearful for their children's emotional safety. Several problems for children during formal supervised access were identified. For example the non-custodial parent:
- asking the children if they had moved house
- using an abusive name for the custodial parent, which the child then used at home
- asking the children for information about the custodial parent
- getting angry and arguing with the supervisor
- talking about access proceedings with the children
- sometimes bringing presents, leading to children's disappointment when none were brought
- eliciting information about the family's whereabouts during the following week - this custodial parent said:
I was always frightened that he might find out where they were going to be or something, and turn up, and then there'd be a scene. (NZE)
Most non-custodial parents who used formal supervised access stated that the children would be just as safe with them if access were unsupervised. Some felt that the instability of some other parents in the centre placed their children at risk. A few did accept that supervised access was necessary for the children's safety.
The only reason it is supervised is... to make sure that I don't do anything to her - you know, hurt her or get annoyed with her or anything like that I suppose. (O)
It probably gives the children a lot more security and also at [ex-partner's] end there is more security - knowing that the children will be looked after in that environment. (M)
Parents were asked how they thought their children felt about formal supervised access. The majority of custodial parents who used formal supervised access believed it had been a positive experience for their children. They spoke of their children looking forward to seeing their father and enjoying the visits to the centre. One custodial parent related this to her children's feeling of security at the centre.
... [the children are] quite happy to go down to [the supervised access centre] because they know that they're secure and they know that they're being looked after.... They know that daddy isn't allowed to turn up drunk, so he's got to turn up sober; so they're really safe.. (NZE)
I think [my son] has adjusted really well to the supervised access. He comes back and he's in a good mood and when I tell him on the day... he gets really excited and it's like every ten seconds 'see Daddy'. (M)
Another custodial parent felt it was important to her child to be with his father who was of a different ethnicity to herself.
It's like looking in a mirror at each. My baby is half Māori and his father is full Māori... I think [baby's] recognising [his father] but I mean because of the age of the contact he probably can't see that 'this is my father'. (NZE)
Other things children enjoyed about formal supervised access were the attachments they made to the staff, the company of the other children, and the range of activities available to them. Some custodial parents observed that keeping children happy and occupied during access contributed to their safety, as their enjoyment helped to elicit positive responses from the non-custodial parent.
The kids can basically do anything as in painting, playing, they can make themselves their own Milo, there's felt tips, there's glitter, all the paints, paper and everything. They can play board games, play dough.... I think that's why she likes it.... It's quite neat for them. (NZE)
A few custodial parents stated that formal supervised access had not been a good experience for their children. Reasons given were that the children did not trust their father, that children had felt let down when the father had not turned up as arranged, and in the case of a young child, the child felt upset when leaving his mother. Some custodial parents had seen signs of disturbance in their children following access, such as aggression, psychosomatic illness, bad behaviour, and bed wetting. These parents generally observed that it was difficult to determine when these behaviours were part of normal development and when they were a response to access.
Non-custodial parents were more likely to report that their children were not happy with the formal supervised access arrangements, or that they did not know how their children felt. A number spoke of the children seeing their father as a stranger, the children being distressed on arriving or leaving, and older children getting bored and wanting to be able to do things away from the centre.
Occasionally I'll go there and it's like I'm a stranger.... And it'll take an hour before she really feels that she can relax with me and often it's the last half hour that she wants to play horsy ride on Dad's back or, you know really settle down and suddenly you've got this stop-go and that's not good. (O)
They were not themselves. They were not my children any more. That's how I felt because of the way they acted in every way. (O)
He is distressed when I leave him... when it comes time to leave I deliberately put him to sleep. He doesn't understand what's going on. (M)
One non-custodial parent recognised that the children were reacting to his own negativity about the arrangement.
I was going along with quite a negative attitude about it and the kids picked up on that and it was just not going well at all and my youngest, my wee son, he was literally crapping his pants, he was so nervous. (NZE)
Other non-custodial parents stated their children had been very happy with the access visits.
[Child] recognised me and jumped into my arms and had a big love.... [He] was sitting on my knee being like we always did when me and [child] were together.... He made me a pretend cup of coffee.... And he was just being his normal wee self. (NZE)
Custodial and non-custodial parents were asked whether the custodial parent had been safe during formal supervised access, whether there had been any abuse or conflict, and whether they thought that having access supervised was safer for the custodial parent than having access unsupervised.
Most custodial parents who used formal supervised access stated that they felt safer and that there were fewer opportunities for abuse or conflict than with unsupervised access. One parent felt the period of supervised access had helped the non-custodial parent to accept their separation.
He always used to use [child] as an excuse to get to me... and I think now he's got over me. I'm hoping that it's just [child] he wants to see now. (NZE)
Despite feeling safer with supervised access, the majority of custodial parents who had used supervised access centres spoke of incidents in which the non-custodial parent had been waiting outside the centre either when they arrived with the children or when they returned to collect them. In most cases this was experienced as abuse and harassment and left the custodial parent feeling unsafe.
He's been breaking everything by being there early to see me. In the morning when I drop [child] off he's always there on the section. He's sort of like stalking me. It's driving me nuts.... He was in the car park or driving around, or driving past me, timing it perfectly so he'd be as close as possible. (O)
Two custodial parents stated that any possibility that the non-custodial parent knew of their whereabouts left them unsafe. One said:
Every time I go there I think that [ex-partner] is going to jump out of the car and you know, hurt me or say something... As time has gone on I'm not as scared as I was, but... every time I go there my arm hairs stand on end and I'm like 'where is he?'. (M)
Most non-custodial parents stated that formal supervised access had stopped or had the potential to stop any conflict or contact with the custodial parent. One said:
If we were to use the [supervised access centre] as a point where the access was supervised there wouldn't be a problem, but if I had to go to my ex wife's home and pick up my child there would be problems. (O)
Another non-custodial parent felt the supervised access had helped the parents move on.
On the last two lots of visits when I was there with the children she would come and pick them up and we'd walk them out to the car; we put them in ; we spoke respectfully to each other... and left it at that. (NZE)
Parents were asked how they felt about formal supervised access, what had worked well and what had not worked well (in addition to concerns about safety discussed earlier).
The most common response from custodial parents was that they were merely complying with the law or the court in using supervised access, and that they would prefer no access.
I'm complying with the courts. Don't you worry, I'd quite easily not be taking him, but I mean... then I get into trouble. So no... it's something that I'm doing but I still totally believe that it's better off to not know him. (NZE)
However, since they were required to co-operate with access arrangements, the formal supervision generally provided them with reassurance that the children would be safe and receive the care they needed. A few custodial parents expressed a fear that supervised access would not be seen as necessary in the future.
I'm terrified of the day, if it ever happens, that he's allowed to have them at his home or something. Because they'll be in huge danger, I know that. (NZE)
What worked well about formal supervised access - custodial parents
- Child had safe contact with their father
- The contact was regular and consistent
- The custodial parent did not have to have contact with the non-custodial parent
- The custodial parent got a break from the children
- Centre staff were helpful
- The centre had one session which included an evening meal
- The centre gave the custodial parent a written report after every session
What didn't work well about formal supervised access - custodial parents
- Children being left at the centre and the non-custodial parent not showing up
- Non-custodial parent not staying for the full session
- Centre a distance from home - costs of getting there
- Inflexibility of time - juggling breast feeds and sleeps for babies
- Custodial parent having to fill in two hours in an unfamiliar location
- Custodial parent feeling 'rushed out the door' when leaving the children
- Non-custodial parent bringing the children toy guns
- Non-custodial parent bringing sweets when it was agreed not to
- Difficulty of changing the arrangement e.g. for sickness or family occasions
Non-custodial parents had more negative than positive comments about supervised access, although most appreciated that it made it possible for them to see their children and was 'better than nothing'.
What didn't work well about formal supervised access - non-custodial parents
- Feeling locked in, watched, like a criminal
- Child becoming estranged from the whnau
- Grandparents, step siblings, new partner could not attend
- Children hostile, non communicative, inconsistent in behaviour
- Children related more to the supervisor than to their parent
- An artificial environment - relationships within it are not natural
- Forbidden to hug child
- Sessions not long or frequent enough to form a relationship
- Contract very restrictive - where access takes place, what can be talked about
- Older children getting bored
It's kind of like being in prison because you've got four walls around you, you've got the same people there every week, you can't move out of the place, you've got to play with the same toys, you've got to play in the same back yard. Even the kids start to get a bit bored.... It's like a prison. (NZE)
The only problem is none of my family have gotten to see her. And she's got a great grandmother and a great grandfather and if I would like my parents to see my daughter then I have to get permission.... (O)
I didn't agree with me going to see my children there. The environment was alright but my children see their father as being alienated from the environment where he would feel comfortable. (PP)
What worked well about formal supervised access - non-custodial parents
- Staff very helpful and dedicated to the children
- A good facility to take children to - no need to find entertainment
- Easy to celebrate birthdays ('rent a crowd')
- An opportunity for non-custodial parent to have his ability to care for children assessed
The facilities and the support of the people who run [centre] are really good... the kids couldn't ask for more. I don't have to try and entertain them; it's all there. (M)
Getting to see them has worked well, obviously - having some contact with them. We do have fun. We have as much fun as we can within the place. That is the idea of going there. (NZE)
Parents who had used both formal and informal supervised access were asked the reasons why access was supervised. The most common reason given by custodial parents was the protection of children from the risk of direct physical harm. Most non-custodial parents, on the other hand believed access was supervised because the law required it when there were past allegations of violence. Below, in order of frequency are the list of reasons given by custodial and non-custodial parents
Why access was supervised - custodial parents
- Protect children from risk of physical harm
- Non-custodial parent has previously sexually abused child or children
- The law requires supervised access
- Protect custodial parent from further violence
- Protect children from exposure to violence
- Protect children from risk of abduction
- Risk that non-custodial parent will fail to care for the child
- Risk of emotional harm to child or children
Custodial parents said:
If there was unsupervised access... they would not be safe. He used to say he would kill them. He overreacts to any mistake. I fear for them. (NZE)
I've got the permanent Protection Order and that lists me and [child] on there. So, from what I understand, therefore that meant that he's got to have supervised access because [child] is under the Protection Order too. (M)
He had hurt me when [child] was there. They felt that he was a danger to [child] too. (NZE)
That's the safest way of him not hassling her for information about where we live, our phone number, which he's done in the past. (NZE)
Why access was supervised - non-custodial parents
- Past allegations of violence - the law requires supervised access
- Assurance of physical safety of children
- Assurance of emotional safety of children
- A way of re-establishing a relationship with the children
- Don't know
- Punishment of the non-custodial parent
- Fear of abduction of child or children
Non-custodial parents said:
I guess my partner is trying to think that I'd be causing the same grief to my children, causing them emotional violence, which is certainly not the case. Any disagreement my partner and I have ends there. It doesn't bother my children. (NZE)
The court has to establish the level of violence with regard to access to my [child] and it has taken this period of time to do that. My former partner is opposing unsupervised access. (M)
Most custodial and non-custodial parents found formal supervised access easy to arrange, once the decision had been made. Often lawyers, particularly Counsel for the Child, and occasionally court staff had put parents in touch with centres. A custodial parent said:
[My child's] lawyer organised it... I had to go along for an interview without [my child], then I just took [child], just me and him one day and we showed [child] around. [My child's] known exactly what's going on from day one. (NZE)
Some of the difficulties raised with arranging formal supervised access included having to wait on a waiting list, general tension during the negotiation of the contract, feeling that the staff had taken one side or the other at the induction stage, a lack of centres locally, and needing to change work rosters to fit in with the session. Two non-custodial parents stated they did not go on with access after making the initial enquiries because they would not agree with the centre's requirements.
The reported costs of formal supervised access ranged from $5 to $35 (for professionally supervised access in the non-custodial parent's home) per session. Costs varied according to the provider, the length of the session and the number of children. One centre asked the custodial and non-custodial parent to each make a suggested donation. Custodial parents also stated it cost them time, effort and transport costs to get their children to the access centre. In two cases, the non-custodial parent paid a contribution to the custodial parent's transport costs. Two non-custodial parents who were using higher cost individual supervisors stated they stopped supervised access because they could not afford the costs. Three non-custodial parents stated they had not paid the requested fee to the supervised access centre. Some non-custodial parents resented the fee they paid for supervised access.
Every time I see [child] I've got to pay $20. And that is a very sore point that I have to pay to see my own [child], considering I pay child support every month. (O)