Custody, Access and Child Support: Findings from The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth



In the spring of 1998, the Child Support Team of the Department of Justice Canada commissioned an analysis of the data relating to custody, access and child support from the "Family History and Custody" section of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY).

The NLSCY will follow a group of children until they reach the age of 20. Over 22,000 children from birth to age 11 were first surveyed in the winter of 1994-1995. The survey will be repeated every two years until at least the year 2002. These data provide a unique means to study, over an extended period, how different aspects of children's environments influence their development. Statistics Canada has released the first cycle results and, for the first time, national data are available on the changes in family life that Canadian children experience, including detailed information on their living arrangements and patterns of contact with their parents.


Children are born into diverse family contexts and in increasing proportions to unmarried parents

Thirty years ago, most children were born to first-time married parents who had not lived together nor lived with another partner before marriage. Today, a similar proportion of children are born into two-parent families but, increasingly, their parents are not married. This trend is particularly strong in Quebec, where only 23 percent of the 1993-1994 birth cohorts in the survey were born to parents who married directly.

An increasing proportion of children experience life in a single parent family and they do so earlier in life

One in four children born in the early 1960s had experienced life in a single parent family by the age of 20. One in four children born 10 years later had experienced their parents' separation by the age of 15. According to the NLSCY, almost one in four children born in 1987-1988 had experienced their parent's separation by the age of 6.

Children born to common-law couples face a greater risk of experiencing their parents' separation

The risk of separation is greatest among common-law couples. By the time children born to common-law couples between 1983-1984 reached the age of ten, 63 percent had already experienced the separation of their parents, compared to only 14 percent of children born to parents who married without first living together. This trend is not as strong in Quebec. Nonetheless, common-law unions remain less stable than unions where the partners married directly.

After their parents' separation, the vast majority of children live with their mother

Court orders place 80 percent of children under the age of 12 in their mother's care. Seven percent of children are placed in their father's custody and 13 percent of children are covered by what their parents described as a court order for joint physical custody. Interestingly, most children (69 percent) for whom parents had obtained a shared physical custody order actually lived with their mother only. A very small number of children lived under arrangements where care was shared equally: less than 2 percent of children for whom custody orders were obtained and less than 4 percent in other cases.

After separation, most children see their father less than once a week

After separation, very few children (7 percent) lived with their father only and another small fraction shared residences, although mostly unevenly, with both parents (7 percent). The rest lived with their mother and visited their father with varying frequency: less than one third (30 percent) visited every week, and another 16 percent visited every two weeks. One quarter of children visited their father irregularly and 15 percent never saw him.

The frequency of contact with the father is associated with the type of child support agreement reached, the existence of a court order for custody and the regularity of support payments

One of the striking findings of the survey was that, for most children from broken families, parents said there was no court order for support. For 32 percent of children, parents said there was no agreement at all; for another 32 percent, parents described the arrangements for child support as a private agreement and, for the remaining 36 percent, parents said there was a court order for child support.

When the arrangements for child support were described as a private agreement between the two spouses, 18 percent of children were residing with their father at least part of the time, 44 percent saw their father weekly and only 4 percent never visited with him. When parents said there was a court order for child support, only 5 percent lived with their father full or part-time, 22 percent saw him weekly, and 17 percent never saw him. When there was no child support agreement the numbers were in between: 18 percent lived with their father full or part-time, 25 percent visited weekly, and 24 percent never visited.

Where there was a private agreement for child support, children received more regular support payments than when there was a court order (66 percent vs. 43 percent). Fathers who tended not to pay child support also saw their children less frequently. Of the fathers who had not made a child support payment in the last six months, only 15 percent saw their children weekly and 28 percent never saw their children. Conversely, fathers who supported their children financially tended to see their children regularly: almost half (48 percent) of regular payers saw their children every week and only 7 percent never saw them.


The NLSCY provides invaluable data on the family histories of children in Canada. Further cycles will allow us to assess the impact of the many challenges that face Canadian children as more and more experience the separation of their parents, and at increasingly young ages.

The first cycle results show that the type of union parents enter into raise their family has far-reaching consequences on the lives of their children. Common-law unions are more likely than marriages to end in separation. Children of these common-law unions are more likely than children from broken marriages to live exclusively with their mother; they are more likely to see their father irregularly or not at all; and they are less likely to benefit from regular child support payments. Children whose parents divorce rather than separate are more likely to be covered by a court-ordered child support agreement, but children covered by a private agreement are more likely to receive regular support payments than those covered by a court-ordered agreement.

Further analysis is required to look at such variables as the impact of separation on the level and sources of income for custodial parent households, or the impact of new unions by either parent on existing agreements regarding children from previous unions. It is these questions that we will turn to in our future research.