Mediation in the contact centre: challenges and successes

The traditional national professional conference of the Hungarian Association of Family and Child Welfare Services (MACSGYOE) took place in October 2019 in Siófok. This year, the conference focused on child welfare services, with a special section on the present and future of the contact centre. Dr. Liliána Urbán, lawyer and mediator, and Gabriella Gergely, social worker, [...]

The National Association of Hungarian Family and Child Welfare Services (MACSGYOE) took place in October 2019 in Siófok, Greece. This year, the conference focused on child welfare services, with a special session on the present and future of the contact centre. Dr. Liliána Urbán, lawyer, mediator, and Gabriella Gergely, social worker, mediator, from the Directorate of Social and Child Welfare Institutions of Ferencváros (FESZGYI), were present as section leaders, and Tünde Bulyáki, professional development officer from the Methodology Department of the Directorate General for Social and Child Protection and Mirna Csillag, child protection expert from the Family and Child Welfare Centre of Újpalota, were present as experts.


On the one hand, the contact case provides a neutral place for the child(ren) and the separating parent(s) during or after the transitional period of the divorce, so that the child can exercise his or her right of contact in safety. This means that not be involved in frequent games and violence between parents during the divorce. The focus should be purely on maintaining contact with the family member who lives separately. Often parents forget in the battle that their joint child loves them both, and it is very painful to experience two parents hurting each other and most children blame themselves for the family breakdown. Therefore, an important goal of the service is for the child to gain his or her own experience of the family member who is separated from him or her, which helps the child and the separating parent to connect and then develop the relationship. On the other hand, the professionals also aim to educate parents to be able to build a new life after the separation, in which the other parent is still seen and relied upon as a parent. So, as a responsible parent, taking into account the best interests of the child, the most a parent can do is cooperation with the other parentaspiration. This approach can help to achieve the ultimate goal, i.e. the so-called discharge from the service, so that the child and the separated parent can later continue regular contact in an outside location and then in the parent's new home. This is the motto of the service they run, which comes from Dr. Ferenc Kardos: "In the midst of the greatest human pain and disappointment, the break-up of marriages or partnerships often does not mean complete separation from the other party. A child in common is a bond between parents that is not easily broken, and whose severance is desirable only in rare cases. The child needs both parents, with few exceptions, and the love, support and example of the separating parent cannot be replaced by the other parent, even if he or she loves him or her."

MACSGYOE annual conference events We asked Dr. Lilián Urbán and Gabriella Gergely from FESZGYI to report on the events of the session, and they answered our questions in an interview.

Partners Hungary Foundation (PHA): First of all, I would like to ask you to briefly introduce yourselves and tell us how you were able to be a session leader at the conference?


Gabriella Gergely (GG): I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the MACSGYOE Board for inviting me to the conference and the Partners Hungary Foundation for their interest and presence. We also have a regular working relationship with Partners Hungary, as we often participate in their trainings and invite their staff as speakers at professional events organised by our institution.

As a Tatabánya resident and a social worker, my first job was at the ESI in Tatabánya (Tatabánya District Unified Social Institutions) I had the opportunity to attend a mediation training course in 2002, which provided the basics for mediation and liaison work. As a member of a very innovative team, I enjoyed the training and understood the essence of the method and technique, which was still new at the time, but I was full of doubts as to how this method could be applied in the social and child protection field.

Many years later, after several mediation training courses, the knowledge acquired was put together, because mediation is a very specialised field, unlike general mediation. It is special in many ways. For example, one of the main aims of contact management work is to build the relationship between the child and the separated family member, so the emotions. And in terms of volunteering, mostly obligated (by court, guardianship office) clients use the contact centre service. Furthermore, the issue of impartiality is also different from the general, classical mediation, as it is openly the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration for the contact mediator. Last but not least, the remuneration of the mediator and the costs to be paid by the parties are also different, because the use of the mandatory special service of the child welfare centre free of charge.

Later, after moving to Budapest, I was asked by the management of the FESZGYI, my workplace in the IXth district, in 2009, together with my colleague Luca Lukács, a social worker-psychologist, to start and run the contact centre of the Child Welfare Centre.

Over the past 10 years, we have provided this service successfully and smoothly, partly because of our commitment and because we have always put the best interests of the child first. We have viewed the work of the contact centre as a process, which we see as a long, drawn-out mediation process with individual developments.

Complex service we aimed to help all family members, so that the child could continue to have regular contact in external settings or in the parent's home (natural environment). In this work the acceptance of situations, family members and the child's need and individual pace in terms of rebuilding and deepening relationships were considered the most important. Now, after 10 years, we have handed over the service to two of our colleagues, László Bázsa-Mosó, who works at our institution, and Dr. Lilián Urbán, who joined us as an external member and with whom we worked in the conference session. So, before me, I was in the position of my successor, Lili and I am glad that we had the opportunity to work together, because I think it is important to continue the professional principles, continuity and transfer of experience in the ongoing operation of a service.

At the national level, the quality of the on-call contact centre service is quite scattered, as confirmed by a national survey conducted by the Ministry of Human Resources (EMMI), the results of which were presented to the session audience by the Methodology Department of the Directorate General for Social Affairs and Child Protection.


Liliána Urbán (UL): Being able to be a session leader at the conference is a great honour and I see it as a special opportunity for a number of personal reasons. One is that Dr. Ferenc Kardos name brings back childhood memories for me, because in the early 90s my mother, Erika Urbán worked as his deputy for a while at the Educational Counselling Centre of District VII, where Dr. Ferenc Kardos established the Contact Foundation. I am currently working full-time as a lawyer at the Budapest University of Economics and Business, and, as Gabi mentioned, I am also a mediator at the contact desk of the Family Support and Child Welfare Centre of the FESZGYI. Behind my professions and my work, I can put the value of having a serious social shaping power. Higher education, mediation and contact centre services also influence the way people think. I believe that the work you put in goes beyond the personal and can make not only your future better, but the future of others. As a closing thought to my introduction, I would like to say that it is a great experience for me to be interviewed by Partners Hungary Foundation, where I sometimes volunteer my time to help the organization. I think it's important to work together, and it's a good feeling to meet organisations in this way, even in the context of an interview like this.

PHA: Why was it necessary to have a separate session on the on-call contact centre service at the conference?

UL: The half-day session focused on the tasks, practical aspects and underlying legal framework of the contact centre, to help professionals working in the field. The aim was to reflect with the participants on formulate proposals to further improve the service, with a particular focus on children's interests. At the end of the conference, when summing up the sessions, the experts called on the EMMI, as the body responsible for management and supervision, to support the development of the service. This requires more financial support and a clearer legal environment.

GG: As mentioned I made a national research, which is one of the mandatory, specific services provided by family and child welfare centres examined the situation of the contact centre. Also in 2018, the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights issued a report following a complaint that a child's right to contact with his grandparent had been violated because the municipality could not provide this service to the child and his relative. As the service is to be provided by family and child welfare service providers from 2004 time to talk openly about the lessons and experiences of the past 15 years. In the interests of children, it is important that they have access to a relatively uniform quality of service across the country, which is why it is necessary to talk about legislative harmonisation the minimum professional standards (clarification of the concepts used, the levels of contact, the expectations regarding the training of professionals) and the material and personal conditions required for the service are standardised by the profession. It would also be important for decision-makers and service providers to have these professional minimum standards be known and, based on the same knowledge base, decisions on contact can be made according to the child's individual needs and interests.



PHA: In relation to what has been said before, can it happen that the best interests of the child are not put first? Does it happen in practice that this is put into the background?


GG: In our experience, in divorce proceedings, judges try to facilitate an agreement between the parents, and if this is successful and there are no child endangering circumstances in the proceedings, judges regulate contact by giving the right to remove the child to the separated parent. This is a welcome development, and so in the vast majority of divorces there is no need for a decision to regulate contact by a contact order. However, in cases where, when the decision-making judge considers that the safety of the child and the history of the case require the involvement of professionals and contact in a neutral place, he or she will order so-called supervised contact. This may occur in cases where children have been traumatised during the divorce, where the parent may have a mental illness, addiction or housing difficulties due to contact, or where the perpetrators and victims of violence are the parents, for example where the presence of domestic violence has been established in the proceedings. Or there has simply been no regular contact between the child and the separated parent for many years, so the presence of a professional can help to rebuild the relationship.


Unfortunately, it can happen that the interests of the contact holder (separated parent) or the contact obligor (custodial parent) prevail in a procedure, instead of or in addition to the interests of the child. Consider that in most cases, parents in litigation are accompanied by a legal representative who represents the interests of the client in the proceedings. Who represents the rights and interests of the child in protracted, contentious proceedings? So my big dream is that we can change this approach together, to redefine the issue so that the rights of the child should be the primary consideration, and that the child does not have to live through the divorce as a victim of games and fights, that it is important for the parents and the professionals involved to keep the child informed of what is happening, that he or she is not in uncertainty during the procedure, etc.


PHA: What can be done with a severely traumatised child?


GG: We have already talked about the purpose of the contact centre, its target group, and obviously these determine the working methods we use in this service. When we find that the help provided in the service is not enough, i.e. assessing the child's condition, understanding his/her relationship with his/her parents, reassuring, informing, helping to rebuild the relationship, mediation, etc., then we will recommend a targeted transfer to another service. As our own institution, the FESZGYI also offers a wide range of services, from psychological counselling to addiction counselling, we try to find the right other professional services, primarily within the institution. This is done in a specific way, primarily by consulting the case manager (family support worker or case manager) in the family and child welfare service, while preparing the parents and the child for the tasks ahead. If necessary, the case manager, with the involvement of the family may also convene a case conference, where, by thinking together, the best decision for the child can be made. The case conference will also be attended by a member of the liaison team, as professional work with families and children is based on teamwork.

PHA: Do children who have experienced domestic violence enter the system?


GG: Yes, because in these cases, the court or guardianship office making the decision wants to keep the child safe, for example in contact with the contact centre. According to the principles of the Child Protection Act if a child witnesses violence or aggression between parents, this is also a risk factor. If the parent commits violence against the child, the judge will decide whether it is in the child's best interests to have regular contact or whether it is limited to some or all of the contact. Obviously, a thorough understanding of each case is required on the part of the decision-maker, including the involvement of a forensic expert, and a detailed exploration of the history.


PHA: What do you think the legislation in Hungary is like. Is it clear for professionals?


UL: Processing the regulatory background is not an easy task. The provisions relating to the service are found in several pieces of legislation and are often scattered. In recent years, the practice of service provision has undergone significant changes, which the legislative environment has not yet been able to adequately reflect. I would like to highlight the integration of mediation, or mediation as it is called in law, into the procedure, which has also brought significant changes. It raises questions about the qualification requirements for liaison officers, and in what cases, when and how they can be used. The provisions on mediation have not been revised, and there are many contradictions and ambiguities in the legislation, which call into question the applicability of this otherwise highly effective method.


Gabi in the previous, as you mentioned, often there is no consistency in the use of terms for the service. It is not always the case that, for example, when the court sets the level of contact, it will be clear from that what exactly the professional is supposed to do. We have seen examples where the court's decision was not precise in its definitions, leaving the practitioner to guess how strict the rules would be in the process. This can determine the course of contact, time etc., so it has a significant influence on the process. Such misunderstandings can easily occur if the legislation does not clarify the concepts, so a case, for example, may be unnecessarily protracted.


PHA: How can mediation be used in the service? How are the two related?


GG: Our understanding is that the path from entry into the contact centre to exit is itself a protracted mediation process. This process is about empowering parents to listen to and accept the interests and needs of their children. This can be a big burden for adults at a time of divorce, because for some serious reason they have decided that they cannot or do not want to continue their lives together. Divorce is a loss, as no one starts life together with the intention of getting a divorce. During a period of separation, it is common for parents not to want to be in the same room as the other party, and this is entirely justified in cases of domestic abuse, for example. With this in mind, we also initially take this into account in our discussions with parents we use walking mediationduring which parents do not need to be present in the same space or even at the same time, but we mediate between them. This method can also help to prevent the child from experiencing a so-called conflict of loyalties, which the presence of both parents in such a difficult situation can only generatebecause, as we have already discussed, the child, except in a few cases, loves both parents and understandably wants to please both of them. So in the service, we use the walking mediation and then later mediation, where the family members participate in the meeting at the same time, taking their decisions about future relationships into their own hands. If the age and maturity of the child allows, the child may also be involved in this process.


PHA: Can the law provide security and protection for all participants?


UL: In my view law can only perform its function properly if it is as realistic as possible, keeps abreast of changes in practice and sets out clear, yet transparent, requirements. I also believe that practitioners should not be expected to have the legal knowledge that the current confusing and not always clear legal environment requires. Much more I would prefer to see a separate professional protocol for the service. Previously, in 2016, the EMMI issued a professional protocol On the social support work processes in the framework of family and child welfare services entitled. The document covers several services and, although it sets out the professional expectations precisely, it is too broad and it is difficult to pick out the parts on contact management. It would be useful to so, even alongside such a comprehensive material, but in any case separately create a centralised, legally compliant, but non-legally textual, constantly updated contact centre protocol.


PHA: How cooperative are the courts with child welfare and child protection actors?


GG:  A desire for cooperation and consensus-based agreement, as mentioned above, is also necessary on the part of the families involved in the service and the professionals involved in the process. I think that the judges and the guardianship agencies, who are involved as the contact decision makers, and we are involved as the service providers and professionals involved in implementing the decision, We must approach this sensitive issue with responsibility and professionalism, as we are dealing with children. The difficulty often lies in the lack of communication between decision-makers and service providers. There is a misunderstanding of concepts and often a failure to consider what is in the best interests of the child. Communication can be facilitated by the above-mentioned legal harmonisation, the establishment of professional regulators and clarification of issues relating to the financing of the service. However, my own experience has been very positive in this respect, as over the ten years we have succeeded in establishing cooperation between our institution and the decision-making bodies. Sometimes it has only been necessary to hold a meeting to clarify the conditions for access to the service, its professional objectives and to establish a procedure with the decision-making bodies, which has eased communication breakdowns. We were delighted to take part in the round table discussions initiated by the Central District Court of Pest, which have been held traditionally for four years now, where the staff of the guardianship offices and the family and child welfare centres were able to discuss the rules governing contact. It is important that the staff of the relevant bodies see each other as partners and recognise each other's knowledge, professionalism and all involved should be motivated by what is in the best interests of the child in the particular case.


PHA: What do you think is the biggest professional challenge in this job?


GG: It's difficult to answer that, I really loved my job, probably because it was challenging. Communicating with family members in what may seem like the simplest of situations can be a challenge, as it is an emotionally challenging time to meet children and their adult family members in this service. Perhaps the biggest challenge may be synthesizing the diverse knowledge and experience gained over the years as a professional. An incredible variety of knowledge is needed and it has been a realisation over the years that we ourselves have learned from time to time in this process. You need to be aware of the psychology of divorce, the trauma management, the dynamics and background of abuse, parental alienation, the specifics of the games, the basics of child psychology, legal knowledge, and there you need to be able to give appropriate responses and reactions in the given situation and I could go on and on. And obviously, all reactions and communications can only be conveyed authentically and consistently in this work, with a lot of humility. Of course acceptance is one of the keys of this work. Not to judge others, but to give support and points of reference for individual development.


PHA: What do you consider to be the most incompatible legally and humanly?


UL: I do not think it is appropriate that professionals working in the social sector are employed without their contracts specifying the exact duties of their job. I find this worrying from a labour law point of view and also from a human rights point of view. As a result, we can have the regrettably common situation of professionals being forced into multiple roles with minimal pay, which also raises professional difficulties because of the conflict of interest between roles. I would consider it important to remedy these in order to fill the service with motivated professionals, which I see as an obstacle to the above.


PHA: Do you feel that the work in the contact centres is successful, can you talk about results in such a difficult period in the life of broken families?


GG: The many small steps that family members take in this process can lead to success. With the goal, let's say, of keeping the child safe, building a relationship with the parent, and then getting the child out of the service, then our service has achieved its goal and has been successful. There is a raison d'être for this service, as children are also being modeled in this process on how to identify and articulate their emotions, how to manage their conflicts, which goes beyond the primary goals of the service. We have accompanied the children in our service through beautiful and difficult moments. There was also the case of a teenage child who realised after about six months that his parent living abroad was coming to Hungary just for him, for that two-hour contact. In this case, it was a cathartic moment because the child did not dare to believe that he or she could be wanted by his or her separated parent, due to the possible parental alienation. Today the child attends out-of-hours, weekend-long activities with his parent, so the service has achieved its goal of successful discharge.


PHA: How do you rate the conference in Siofok overall?


GG: I am confident that the power of collective thinking and the will to act can spark a professional dialogue and that this session has been a thought-provoking one to shape the vision of this service. For my part, I would have liked to have made the session more informative, but I am also aware that four and a half hours of session work is not enough to cover everything. Basically, it is very it was uplifting to see the very active participation of professionals and professional leaders from all over the country, I thank them for this.


UL: The conference provided a number of useful ideas from the participants. We were able to work in excellent harmony as session leaders and with the experts, which I feel motivated the participants. I was pleased to see in the summary at the end of the conference that we were able to summarise all the issues for the EMMI, which gives us hope for a positive future.

In the meantime, I recommend the publication of the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences of the University of Szeged, compiled by mediators organised by the Partners Hungary Foundation. The handbook is entitled Divorce Mediation from the Children's Perspective. In the publication, the mediators tried to put the child's interests into perspective.


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