Shared Custody Arrangements:
Pilot Interviews With Parents
Since 1990, the Department of Justice Canada has undertaken a program of research on issues relating to the support and welfare of children in families that separate or divorce, including child support, and custody and access. One concept that spans both child support and custody and access issues is that of parenting arrangements. Recently, the Department commissioned a critical review of the literature on custody arrangements (Moyer 2004). This review highlighted the need for more detailed information on the characteristics and impacts of differing custody arrangements. In response, the Department of Justice Canada commissioned a pilot study to examine the feasibility of collecting information on parenting arrangements on a national level.
This project had two objectives:
To explore shared custody arrangements of a small sample of parents in order to generate hypotheses and directions to explore in future research.
To devise a methodology for conducting a study of shared custody arrangements that could extend to other parenting arrangements and national samples. The pilot study allowed for an initial examination of the limitations and practical methodological issues to be addressed in a national study, without the cost of a large survey.
The focus of this pilot is on shared custody arrangements. In this study we used the federal government’s definition of shared custody as it appeared in the 1997 Child Support Guidelines—meaning that the children reside in two residences and that they spend a minimum of forty percent of time in the second residence (Department of Justice Canada, 1997). It is important, in particular, to distinguish shared custody in this sense from joint legal custody, in which parents share responsibility for key decision areas in the children’s lives, but may have any of several possible living arrangements.
The sample for this study included 50 parents from Alberta who were divorced and had shared custody arrangements. These parents were contacted by phone and responded to an in-depth interview regarding their custody arrangements, including:
- Family history;
- Arrangements at the time of separation;
- Arrangements at the time of the divorce;
- Arrangements as they are currently (at the time of the interview);
- Parental responsibilities;
- Expenses associated with shared custody;
- Relationship between the parents;
- Outcomes for the children;
- Parental satisfaction with the shared custody arrangement;
- Demographic information;
- Inquiry about possible future interviews with children;
This sample was small and not generalizable outside of the current group of parents. However, there were sufficient participants to determine the feasibility of conducting further research, methodologies that would be most appropriate for a larger study and hypotheses to explore in further research.
Findings from this study provided information on how shared custody arrangements were put into practice in some cases. 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 this 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. 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 this 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, 2004: 22-23). 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 in this sample. 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 this 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.
Feasibility of Undertaking a National Study
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. Finally, it provides some encouragement that responses to questions of the type posed in this pilot will be reliable to an acceptable level to be worthy of analysis. Our experience with the pilot has also identified some challenges that will need to be addressed in planning a national research project.
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