Shared Custody Arrangements:
Pilot Interviews With Parents
Findings from this study provided information on how shared custody arrangements were put into practice in some cases. We found that, in the majority of cases, living arrangements in the families have been stable throughout the period after separation and beyond the time of the divorce. Parents in our sample reported an ongoing ability to work co-operatively with their former spouses to share the parenting of their children, and overall satisfaction with the living and parenting arrangements they have in place. For the most part, the parents were in frequent contact with each other and on friendly terms, discussing parenting issues as they arose and supporting each others’ parenting decisions. We found that in about 75 percent of the cases, the formal shared custody arrangement was translating, in practice, into an actual sharing of parenting on a day-to-day basis. A substantial majority of the parents considered the arrangement to be working well for the children precisely because of the fact that they were able to work together co-operatively.
In our sample, shared custody was more likely to be in place after the divorce than in the immediate post-separation period. This is contrary to some research that suggests that shared custody is sometimes a casualty of the realities that are experienced as parents adjust to their new, separate lives (Moyer, 22-23). We also found that factors such as children growing older and becoming more independent, or a parent moving further away from the other parent for employment, were often the impetus for change in the living arrangements after divorce. Only in a very small number of cases was an apparent inability to parent co-operatively the cause of a change in arrangement. Another finding that was generalized in many of the areas we examined was that parenting arrangements and practices in our shared custody cases appear to be worked out informally and to evolve over time, as opposed to being determined through the formality of the divorce arrangement. The divorce appears to establish the shared custody as an overall parenting model, but parents develop many of the specific arrangements themselves, with little or no involvement from lawyers. Decision-making about the children is often informal, and changes in decision-making patterns reflect changes in living arrangements or other circumstances, rather than deliberate changes in the way decisions are made. The division of the many parenting responsibilities that need to be shared appears also to be somewhat informal and subject to varying interpretations by former spouses. This is largely because those responsibilities are too interwoven and changeable over time to allow for an overly structured arrangement.
The parents in our sample tended to share expenses in most areas, rather than divide the responsibilities by expense item. Few areas of disagreement about expenses were reported. The fact that almost all of the parents we interviewed worked full-time, and that the parents in our sample reported themselves as being in a relatively high socio-economic group, may be a contributing factor. Expenses reported by both fathers and mothers for housing and utilities, in particular, were substantial, and were duplicated in both households in almost equal measure.
The experience of this pilot study in Alberta indicates that a larger national research project on child custody arrangements, based on telephone interviews with parents, is feasible. Our experience suggests that parents will be willing participants in such a study, and that they will have little reluctance to address what are sometimes sensitive issues. It also suggests that it may well be possible to build into the research a component with children of divorced and separated parents.
The purpose of a national study would be to understand how different custody arrangements function in practice, to examine the factors that influence how well each type of custody works, and to assess the conditions that appear most amenable to these types of custody arrangements. Ultimately, such research would contribute to the federal government’s policies to help ensure that children’s best interests are served in custody orders and agreements.
There are several pivotal concerns that would need to be closely considered. These include determination of the potential sample and methodologies to be used to obtain the information. However, the drawbacks and potential difficulties of undertaking a national study do not outweigh the benefits of obtaining current and accurate information on custody arrangements in Canada.
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