Critical Review of Social Science Research on Parental Relocation Post-Separation/Divorce

Executive Summary

Relocation, as an issue in the context of family law, typically involves the proposed move of a separated or divorced parent with a child to a new residence a substantial distance away from the non-moving parent. Unlike local moves that may include a move to a residence in the same neighborhood, relocation typically requires a change to an existing custody and/or access arrangement due the new distance between the child and the non-moving parent. Due to the complexity of factors to consider in relocation cases after separation and divorce, it is one of the most challenging types of cases related to child custody matters within the family justice system.

In Canada, current case law applies the principles of Gordon v. Goertz, a Supreme Court decision from 1996.However, there has been criticism that this case provides insufficient guidance, which contributes to the high rates of litigation. The “best interests of the child” is the basis of the decision, and there are no presumptions in favour of either parent.

Pursuant to Gordon v. Goertz, in determining the best interests of the child, the court should consider, amongst other factorsFootnote 1:

  1. The existing custody arrangement and relationship between child and the custodial parent;
  2. The existing access arrangement and the relationship between the child and the access parent;
  3. The desirability of maximizing contact between the child and both parents;
  4. The views of the child;
  5. The custodial parent’s reason for moving, only in the exceptional case where it is relevant to that parent’s ability to meet the needs of the child;
  6. Disruption to the child of a change in custody; and
  7. Disruption to the child consequent on removal from family, schools, and the community he or she has come to know.

Many other factors can impact whether a move is beneficial to a child and the parents, including (but not limited to) parental income; the level of satisfaction of both parents about the parenting arrangement post separation and the decision of one parent to relocate; the neighborhood in which the family resides; and presence of/influence of new partners of either parent, etc.

While the field is replete with summary reports and literature reviews of the various factors that should be considered and the potential impact and long-term consequences of relocation for families, the majority of these reports include, but do not distinguish between, relocation studies versus studies on local moves of short distances, nor general research about parent-child relationships, nor relocation with non-divorced samples. Therefore, there is a need to critically examine the research specific to relocation within the context of separation and divorce to isolate which factors are most influential in ensuring the best outcomes for children and families.

The purpose of this report was to conduct a comprehensive and critical review of Canadian and international social science research on relocation of families, particularly as it applies to families post-separation or divorce. To this aim, the author excluded studies that included court based analysis of relocation cases, relocation studies of non-divorced populations, and studies that only considered local moves and/or did not distinguish local moves from relocation post separation and/or divorce. The rationale for excluding these non-relocation studies is that the literature about relocation is already cluttered with the mixing of different types of moves (relocation to a different location versus moving residence) and many reports do not adequately control for the type of family structure included in the reviews, thus making any extrapolation of these findings to the context of separation and divorce problematic.

In order to isolate the empirical evidence on post-separation/divorce relocation, the author completed a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) of the social science evidence to retrieve studies that explored relocation within the context of separation and divorce. The REA approach was used to systematically detail the information retrieval process for the included and excluded studies, to assess the methodological quality of the relocation studies based on a standard assessment form, and to ensure transparency of the review process and results generated from the REA approach.

By only including relocation studies, factors related to relocation within separating populations were considered, including: 1) reasons for the move; 2) age of sample; 3) children’s input into decision; 4) resulting relationship with each parent; 5) post relocation custody and contact arrangements: 6) the economic impact of relocation; and 7) the impact of relocation on children.

Based on a comprehensive review of the empirical evidence, 11 studies that focused on relocation within the context of separation and divorce were located, retrieved and appraised based on a common standard for assessing the methodological quality of the studies. Results of the critical appraisal found that the majority of social science research studies on relocation are of poor quality. No high quality studies were located. Overall, the project’s findings demonstrate the need to move away from oversimplified considerations for relocation and to embrace a more comprehensive approach to fully capture the various factors that are relevant to consider when considering the strengths and limitations of relocation.

The lack of empirical evidence on relocation to inform decision-making regarding predicting positive outcomes for children suggests the importance of focusing on the best interests of each particular child on a case-by-case basis. Relying on evidence not directly related to relocation issues can be misleading, faulty and not representative of the unique experiences of families involved in relocation disputes.

Future studies should clearly operationalize relocation within the context of divorce. More high quality social science research is needed to distinguish relocation from local moves. Future studies should include larger samples of separating and divorcing families with standardized measures to explore the potential long-term impact of relocation on children and parents. Qualitative studies can also advance our understanding of the contextual factors that could be considered when assessing the risks and benefits of relocation for children and parents following separation and divorce.

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