Post-Separation Visitation Disputes: Differential Interventions




This study set out to examine whether focussed, more solution oriented approaches are as effective or more effective than the traditional child custody/access evaluation that focusses on gathering "evidence" as to "who is the better parent." The study had specific inclusion/exclusion criteria. The study was exploratory in nature, as there are presently no studies in the literature that differentiate between types of interventions used with families, i.e. focussed vs traditional child custody and/or access evaluations and outcomes. Methodological problems have been raised in the literature with respect to mothers' reports only. This study gathered information from multiple informants on multiple items in questionnaires.

Parents reported an increase in visitation days between the non-custodial parent (usually the father) and the child, even though they had concerns regarding the other's understanding of the child's socio-emotional needs. While there was no statistical significance found between the two interventions, parents did report that the focussed evaluation intervention was of greater help in re-framing the conflict between the parents towards more problem-solving between them. This might account for the high rate of agreement between parents (84 percent) with respect to the overall satisfaction with the service.

Fathers reported that they communicated more with their ex-spouse in the traditional evaluation intervention than in the focused evaluation intervention at Time 2. This could be attributed to the length of time required for each intervention. This would support both parents reporting that the content of their communication did change. At Time 2, both parents in each intervention reported that they spoke less about issues that would cause conflict between them and none about:

  • (a) day to day decisions concerning their child;
  • (b) major decision-making about their child;
  • (c) how the child was adjusting to the divorce; and
  • (d) financial matters.

Ahrons (1981), Johnston et al. (1987) and Radovanovic et al. (1994) reported similar findings. Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) and Radovanovic et al. (1994) found that parents who disputed child custody and access arrangements continue to have poor communication 12 to 18 months later.

Many of the parents in this study had already been in litigation for three years prior to contact with the Children's Lawyer. This would indicate that they had not been able to resolve their parenting differences between them for some time regarding their child. Thus, helping high conflict parents develop skills for the exchange of child-related information and less conflictual patterns of communication is an important aspect of any intervention. Additionally, learning problem-solving techniques for the future would be important and beneficial to their child.

It is interesting to note the relatively moderate correlation between maternal and paternal ratings of their child's overall behaviour at Time 2 given that that research demonstrates differences in custodial and noncustodial parents ratings of their child on the CBCL. Over 80 percent of mothers had custody of the child, and yet fathers were generally attuned to their child's behaviour. This suggests that both parents may have already been more focussed on their child notwithstanding their individual differences. The congruence of parent ratings is significant in three ways. First, fathers are important informants in the process. Many studies often do not report fathers' findings due to the poor response rate from fathers (Lee, 1997). Second, the congruence may account for the finding that the proportion of children scoring in the clinically significant range of emotional and behavioural problems, as reported by the parents on the CBCL, was lower than what is reported in other studies (Johnston et al., 1987; Radovanovic et al., 1994). Third, this might also explain the increase in the number of days of access per month between father and child as recommended by the social worker.

In contrast, other studies have demonstrated little association between fathers' and mothers' reports on the CBCL, citing that as children have little contact with their non-custodial parent (usually the father every other weekend), the father would not really know their child well enough to report accurately on the child's socio-emotional development (Radovanovic, 1993; Radovanovic, et al., 1994). They also raise the issue that children act differently in the two different homes, which would contribute to the differences found in the parents' reports. Future work needs to explore both gender and age differences in children.

Austin and Jaffe (1990) were early pioneers in raising the issue of differentiating and understanding the actual process of child custody evaluations and the role that evaluators play with respect to settlement. This is in contrast to the mediation and psychotherapy literature, which is replete with studies examining the relationship between clinician and outcomes. This study attempted to address some of these limitations in the child custody literature by providing a fidelity checklist for social workers and parents as well as a manual about each step for each intervention. These results mean that some families can be helped in a shorter period of time and that possible process variables different from those in the traditional intervention account for positive outcomes. Ways to further refine the manual and fidelity checklist would need to be explored in the future.

While the results of this study shows no significant correlations among the social workers' intervention, number of hours spent with the family, years of experience and age of social worker and settlement rates, it must be remembered that this was an exploratory study. Parents reported that they were equally satisfied with both interventions and that the majority of the cases settled with the assistance of the Children's Lawyer. Not surprisingly, satisfaction with both interventions appeared to be connected to custodialstatus and the direction of the recommendations. This finding was supported in the literature (Birnbaum and Radovanovic, 1999; Radovanovic et al., 1994).

While the results seem to indicate that the inclusion/exclusion criteria are working for this population, we do not know if the intervention works for parents facing more complex issues, e.g. domestic violence, an alienated child, etc.

However, the results appear to suggest that there is potential for further research with the focussed evaluation intervention using the inclusion/exclusion criteria.

Date modified: