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

1. Introduction

Families move for a variety of reasons including economic necessity, work related reasons, as well as divorce and remarriage (Austin, 2012; Bala & Harris, 2006; Glennon, 2007; Gottfried 2002). Gottfried (2002) notes that in divorced and separated families, “the needs of both parents to secure or retain employment, pursue educational or career opportunities, relocate with a new spouse, or seek support of other family or friends renders it unlikely that divorced parents will permanently remain in the same location” (pp. 476).

Unlike the more common “local move” when each parent moves to different homes but in the same general geographical location, “relocation” disputes arise when a parent wants to move with the child a significant geographical distance away from the other parent. Depending on the factors associated with the move and the child’s previous relationship with the non-moving parent, relocation has the potential of disrupting or changing the children’s level and quality of contact with their non-moving parent. In addition, factors such as the reason for the move (economic, to be close to extended family), the child’s temperament, the child’s age, the quality of the parent-child relationships, etc., can all impact on outcomes for children in relation to relocation.

Relocation disputes are widely regarded as one of the most controversial and difficult issues in family law internationally (Carmody, 2007; Stahl, 2006; Tapp & Taylor, 2008). Family court professionals including judges, lawyers, mediators, and social workers are given the daunting task of sorting through the conflicting and competing interests regarding the potential benefits and limitations of relocation proposals. When disputes about relocation surface within the context of custody disputes, these cases often present a three-way competition between the needs of the child, the needs of the relocating parent, and the needs of the remaining parent.

1.1 Definition of relocation

Separation results in the restructuring of relationships, including changes in parent-child relationships, sibling relationships and co-parent relationships with former partners (Saini, 2012). The breakdown of intact families also requires parents to move to separate households as they transition to these newly defined relationships. Generally, moving after separation is “a shift in address ... involving a shift in location through space that can vary from a few feet in the case of a shift from one apartment or room to another within a structure to thousands of miles to another country or from one end of the country to the other” (Rossi, 1980; p. 18). But more specifically, it is important to distinguish local moves, moves of short distances and usually within the same locality, which do not have an impact on the parenting schedule, from a relocation, where one parents proposes to move with the child to a different geographical location from the non-moving parent thus potentially impacting the parent-child relationships.

It is not uncommon for individuals to make several local moves during their lifetime as they experience economic, employment, family, and life cycle changes. These changes can be both positive (e.g. moving to a bigger house to accommodate an expanding family) and negative (e.g. being evicted from an apartment for failure to pay rent) depending on the circumstances of the move. Local moves therefore are not unique to separated and divorcing families as these can occur across the lifespan and for various reasons.

Relocation is the term used to denote longer distance moves between distinctly different localities, for example to a different city, province or potentially another country. Relocations occur for many reasons, including in the context of an intact family. For example, the family unit as a whole may move from one city or province to another. Within the context of separation and divorce, which is the focus of the present paper, depending on the nature of the child’s relationship with the non-moving parent, a relocation may reasonably be expected to have a significant impact on that relationship.

1.2 Current social science evidence on relocation

Sifting through the current social science evidence regarding relocation is complicated because several of the studies relied on by professionals do not directly address the issue of relocation within the context of separation and divorce, but instead consider more broad implications of both local moves and relocation (Pettit, 2004; Simpson et. al. 1994; South et. al. 2005; Wood, 1993) or explore separation and divorce without direct focus on cases of relocation (Riesch et. al. 1994; Wallerstein & Lewis, 2009). It is important to note that these articles are often referenced in reviews of relocation, notwithstanding that the primary purpose of these studies are not related to the issues of relocation following separation and divorce. Caution is needed to safeguard against making erroneous generalizations beyond the purpose of these primary studies.

Despite the large body of literature regarding local moves and relocation outside the context of separation and divorce, there is surprisingly little empirical research evidence about relocation disputes within the context of separation and the impact they have on family members to assist with determining when an application for relocation should be supported by the courts (Braver, Ellman & Fabricius, 2003). Stahl (2006) believes that “the key to finding the answers in this area of child custody is research. More is needed.” (p. 173) Behrens (2003) concurs:

There is a vital need for research that contributes to knowledge about the results and the effects of court decisions that restrict, or enable, relocation. Decisions on these matters are based on a range of assumptions or guesses about what will happen as a result of a particular decision, and yet there is no empirical evidence that explores the aftermath and helps to make these assessments. It is difficult to have a great deal of faith in a process that involves making such important decisions for children and their parents yet is so unpredictable and has no follow up mechanisms to assess the results and impacts of the decisions (Behrens, 2003, p. 589).

In the absence of social science evidence to guide decisions regarding relocation, courts appear to have relied instead on indirect social science evidence about the potential effects of local moves on children (Austin, 2008, 2012; Braver et al., 2003; Kelly, & Lamb, 2003; Wallerstein & Lewis, 1998). As another example, Kelly and Lamb (2003), considered the literature on attachment relationships in infants and toddlers and the ways in which relocation may likely impact parent-child relationships of young children of different ages. Research on the negative impact of multiple local moves on children’s overall growth, development and school functioning (Wood, Halfon, Scarlata, Newacheck & Nessim, 1993) has also been used to demonstrate the potential impact of relocation on children. Extrapolating the results of the general literature on children's mobility to relocation in the separation and divorce context is problematic. Studies of the impact of mobility on children do not always account for other adverse factors that may moderate negative relationships found between mobility and child adjustment that may have contributed to the moves, such as lower socioeconomic circumstances, living in high risk neighbourhoods, employment issues, distance of the move, and the impetus for it, etc. (Austin, 2012). Dong, Anda, Feletti, Dube, Brown and Giles (2005) for example found a relationship between childhood experiences of high mobility (e.g. eight plus moves) and children’s negative health outcomes (e.g. increased risk of smoking, alcoholism, depression and attempted suicide) but could not isolate these negative outcomes due to the frequent moves from other adverse experiences (e.g. living in poverty). Studies on mobility also tend not to consider circumstances in which children may be harmed because of limited residential choices prevent moving out of neighbourhoods that impede educational and life chances of children due to economic barriers. Just as frequent moving may harm some children's educational attainment, other children may be harmed by immobility and the long-term exposure to high-risk neighbourhoods. Pettit (2004) for example found that mobility out of high poverty areas has been found to be beneficial for children.

When considering literature reviews of the evidence, it is important to consider the potential for source bias, which is the non-systematic selection of studies to include in a review. Selection bias can have huge implications to the conclusions of the report if unaddressed. Wallerstein, for example, significantly influenced how the courts dealt with relocation cases when she wrote her amicus curiae in the United States case Marriage of BurgessFootnote 2, where she argued for a presumption in favour of allowing the custodial parent to relocate with the child. Much of this position was based on her own small, non-representative sample and a few low quality studies that showed no association between child adjustment and amount of father-child contact (Braver et al. 2003). Despite the selection bias of the studies included in Wallerstein’s brief, the court agreed, helping to begin an international trend in court decisions to permit custodial parents to move with the child. For example, in a New Jersey Supreme Court decision (Baures v. Lewis, 2001) that was heavily influenced by Wallerstein's amicus curiae, the court affirmed "the simple principle that, in general, what is good for the custodial parent is good for the child" (p. 28).

The problem is further complicated when the courts rely on indirect social science about the factors associated with relocation and when there is insufficient scrutiny about the quality of studies included in these judgements. Braver et al. (2003) recognized that the court has typically relied on weak methodological studies on relocation. Likewise, Austin (2012) has emphasized that borrowing knowledge from the non-divorced population to extrapolate findings for relocation cases within the context of divorce is problematic. It is therefore in this context that this report includes a systematic critical appraisal of existing evidence specific to relocation within the context of separation and divorce. The main goal of this paper is to critically assess the current literature specific to relocation and to assess the strength of their conclusions.

1.3 Outline of the report

The overall focus of the report is to present the critical appraisal of the empirical evidence of relocation within the context of separation and divorce. The first part of the report presents the information retrieval strategy and screening process for selecting the studies included in this review. The second part of the report is to detail the grading criteria used for assessing the methodological quality of the included studies. The reporting of the methodological strengths and limitation of the included studies is first displayed in the table of included studies and then in a descriptive analysis across the included studies. The last section of the report presents cautions and considerations when attempting to generalize the empirical evidence to client-based decisions, and the tentative conclusions that can be drawn from the research undertaken to date.


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