When Parents Separate: Further Findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth



The last decades of the 20th century were marked by profound changes in the family: declining fertility levels, increasing divorce, and the decline of marriage's monopoly, first for the formation of conjugal unions, and more recently, as the context for establishing a family. The impact of these shifts on Canadian children is equally profound, as changes in their parents' conjugal and parental life translate into family transitions in their own. This second phase of research into the impact of parents' transitions on children's family environment and economic well-being has focused on what is, for most children, the first, and perhaps most significant, change during childhood—their parents' separation. More specifically, this research involved: a) updating information on the context within which children are born and its impact on their subsequent family life course, with particular reference to parental separation; b) exploring the arrangements made by separated parents concerning their children's care after separation, with the focus on shared custody; and c) analysing new information on the custody and child support arrangements made by separated parents.

Children are born into a variety of contexts because they arrive in their mother's and father's life at different points. The birth of a first child to a young single mother, for example, may be the first "event" in the mother's family life course. Most children arrive further on, to parents who have made particular lifestyle choices—to marry before starting a family, for example—or who are already on a second or third family. The point at which children arrive in their mother's and father's life course is linked to the way in which their own family life during childhood is likely to evolve, although the nature of this link is not clear. Children born in a second family, for example, are more likely to experience their parents' separation than children born into their parents' first family, as are children born within a common-law union compared with those born within marriage.

However, these factors are themselves in evolution. The context at birth changed dramatically during the last two decades, and almost one-third of Canadian children were born outside legal marriage by the turn of the century. Moreover, while the popularity of cohabitation in Quebec largely accounts for the rise in common-law union births in Canada, there has been a significant increase in the phenomenon in all regions. Compared with children born in the early 1980s, for example, those born at the end of the 1990s were twice as likely to be born to a cohabiting couple in Ontario and the Prairies, and almost three times as likely in Eastern Canada. Similarly, the proportion of children born within the second family established by their mother or father rose from 11% among the oldest cohorts to 18% among the youngest.

Overall, the probability of parental separation rose rapidly throughout Canada for children born during the 1980s, and then leveled off by the early 1990s, leaving separation levels high, but no longer increasing. However, a rise, during the 1990s, in the proportion of children born outside a union means that this second entry point into single-parent family life may assume a greater relative importance in the next decade, particularly in regions where separation levels are lower than average and out-of-union births higher. Already, regions of Canada with low levels of separation find themselves with as high a proportion of children experiencing life with a lone parent as other regions. The Atlantic provinces, for example, is one of the only regions in which children born in a union have a three in four chance of still living with both parents at their tenth birthday. However, the high proportion of births to single mothers, with one in six (16%) babies born outside a union, raises the likelihood of a child experiencing life with a lone parent to levels similar to those in the other provinces.

This evolution is all the more important because the pathway into a lone-parent family is strongly linked to the type of lifestyle a child is likely to have during the episode. Children in lone mother families created after separation or divorce, for instance, enjoy a higher standard of living, on average, than children born to a young single mother (Peron et al. 1999). This has obvious social policy implications, with a higher proportion of lone-parent families in need of financial assistance in some provinces than in others.

With no father present, many single mothers have to assume full responsibility for their baby's physical and economic support. When couples separate, on the other hand, these responsibilities have to be renegotiated, with arrangements generally recorded in the form of custody and child support agreements. One problem, raised earlier, is that the published divorce statistics do not make it possible to follow the evolution of children's living arrangements following separation. Recently, in the Child-Centred Family Justice Policy, the Department of Justice suggested replacing the terms "custody" and "access" with a new model based on parental responsibilities, with both parents responsible for their children's well-being after separation or divorce. Arrangements made by parents at separation would include a residential schedule setting out the time spent by children with each parent, on the one hand, and decision-making responsibilities related to children's health, education and other matters, on the other. Clarifying the different elements of children's care after separation, and recording decisions related to a child's physical as well as legal custody, could go a long way towards improving current information on the way custody and living arrangements are evolving.

Sharing physical custody at separation is growing in popularity, despite certain obvious drawbacks of this type of arrangement. Even though it seems to be a difficult arrangement to maintain over time and often transforms into sole custody, sharing custody for a period after separation appears to lay the basis for children's continued long-term involvement with both parents. It may be an important step in the transition towards a secure relationship with a non-resident parent, giving parents and children alike the time to develop new and secure foundations for their relationship. However, not only does this arrangement require a high degree of cooperation between separated parents, the additional cost in having two family homes puts it beyond the means of many, and the need for geographic proximity makes it unworkable for others. With research in the United States suggesting that non-resident parents remain more involved with their children if "legal" custody is shared (Seltzer 1991, 1998), in cases where parents are unable to share the residential responsibility for their children, each parent having responsibility over other aspects of the child's life could have a positive effect.

Although problems with the questionnaire limited the scope of the analyses, the new questions about custody and child support, added at Cycle 3, provide some important insights into the separation process at the end of the 1990s. One issue currently under debate is whether children should be given more of a voice in decisions made about their future at divorce proceedings. Courts are wary of exposing children to conflict between parents, or of asking children to "choose" between their parents. Nevertheless, the analysis in this report shows that the majority of children over the age of seven or eight years are consulted by their separating parents, particularly when custody is settled privately rather than through the legal system. In other words, children are being asked to voice their preferences; parents consider that children have a right to their say, and the opinion they express is taken seriously. It could be argued that not giving the same rights to children whose parents are unable to reach an agreement out of court is simply penalizing them further.

The information on child support payments improved considerably with the addition of questions concerning a) whether having a child support agreement meant that child support payments were expected and b) the proportion of the payments received. The analysis indicates that the vast majority of payments are made both regularly and on time, at least during the relatively short period after separation under observation. The problem seems above all to be that of negotiating an agreement, rather than its implementation once it has been reached. However, the fact that more separating couples are reaching a child support agreement, and more rapidly, suggests that the Child Support Guidelines introduced in 1997 have had some success in helping separating couples share financial responsibilities for their children. Nonetheless, there is still some way to go; perhaps the most pressing issue is related to the prohibitive financial costs involved when parents are unable to agree and which may ultimately compromise the best interests of the child.

Finally, a theme that has reappeared at several points during the text is the distinctive nature of Quebec, not only with regard to common-law unions but also in relation to the way parental responsibilities are shared at separation. In Quebec, shared living arrangements and sole father custody are more common; shared custody is more durable; agreements made about custody and access are generally more strictly adhered to; and children are more often consulted about these arrangements. Why is this? Is it a result of the different approach to separation and divorce in Quebec law (see Department of Justice, 2002)? Or is it a social rather than a legal phenomenon? Are family roles less defined along gender lines in Quebec? Is the symmetry in the discourse and practice of parental roles, identified in a study of Montreal couples with shared physical custody (Côté, 2000), more prevalent in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada? This is an interesting avenue for further research, not least to discover whether the differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada extend to the impact of separation on children.