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

4.0 Critical appraisal of included studies on relocation Post-separation/divorce

4.1 Cautions and issues with the studies

Based on the overall low quality of the studies reported, the review of findings across the 11 studies should not be considered as generalized comments about relocation, but rather considerations and cautions when considering the factors of each relocation case. Locating relevant, up-to-date data is an ongoing issue; over a third of the studies reviewed are over ten years old. As well, many of the studies did not directly consider the effects of relocation on the children involved and did not address outcomes specific to children. It is with this caution that the included studies are further considered to provide insight into the various factors related to relocation and children’s adjustment post separation and divorce.

4.1.1 Methodological issues

The studies analyzed in this paper had an eclectic range of methodological designs. Some studies used qualitative self-administered questionnaires, interviews and surveys (Asher & Bloom, 1983; Booth & Amato, 1993; Freeman, 2009; Parkinson, Cashmore & Single, 2011), while other studies used more quantitative questionnaires (Braver et al., 2003; Fabricius & Braver, 2006). A mixed–methods approach, utilizing semi-structured interviews and detailed data analysis and coding of surveys and ratings was also used (Behrens & Smyth, 2010), and another completed data extraction and analysis from a compilation of data from national census’ (Grundy, 1985). Lastly, some studies used a time event history model in a longitudinal study (Parkinson et al. 2001; Taylor & Gallop, 2010). There remains no standard method for studying relocation within the context of separation and divorce.

The majority of studies were replete with methodological flaws such as lack of random sampling, inability to demonstrate temporal order, and the overemphasis on single sources of data. Although some efforts were made across studies to control for extraneous variables, the majority of these studies overlooked several key variables, such as parental conflict, exposure to domestic violence, and child maltreatment. In fact, less than a quarter of the reviewed studies discussed domestic violence. There is also an overreliance in the relocation literature on the use of self-reported measures. The inclusion of secondary sources (e.g. a teacher’s perspective or a copy of the student’s academic records) is important to include so as to triangulate with the information provided by parents within these studies.

4.1.2 Location of studies

A majority of the studies on relocation were conducted in the United States. None of the 11 included studies were from Canada. Relocation studies, other than the United States, included studies from Australia, Finland, Denmark, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Due to the vast geographical space and regional differences across Canada, it is imperative that relocation be studied within the Canadian context.

4.1.3 Definitional issues

One of the major limitations of the empirical evidence on relocation is the lack of consistency in defining relocation. Moving after separation can include: moving to a home in the same neighbourhood, to a different city, to a different province and to a different country. There is no consensus on the distance required to distinguish relocation from the more common local move that occurs after separation and divorce. This lack of standard definition  of relocation makes it difficult to compare results across studies given the lack of consistency in the variable considered. Many studies (see footnote # 4) were excluded because they focused on local moves (residential mobility) rather than geographic relocation following separation and divorce. To move the field forward, it is important to clearly define and operationalize terms such as ‘relocation’, ‘local moves’ so that there is a common understanding and method for measuring moves across studies.

4.1.4 Operationalization of concepts

There also remains no consistency in operationalizingFootnote 5 major concepts related to children’s outcomes across studies. For example, measuring “children’s outcomes” ranged from assessing substance use, to behavioural problems (which vary in definition), to sexualized behaviours. The difficulty in assessing children’s outcomes post relocation is that there remains no consensus in the literature regarding the primary and secondary outcomes for children. For example, positive outcomes for children can include: emotional and behavioural adjustment, academic performance, positive parent-child relationships, positive peer supports, satisfaction, etc. Without a clear framework for assessing children’s outcomes, different conclusions can be made about the relative merits of relocation, simply by focusing on different outcomes.

4.2 Factors that have been identified relevant to relocation in reviews

The following provides the results regarding the factors that have been identified as relevant to relocation based on the 11 empirical studies included in the review. 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) corollary issues of child and/or spousal support; division of property; and 7) the impact of relocation on children.

4.2.1 Reasons for the move

When parents are seeking to relocate, it is often because at least one of the parents considers the move to be positive for themselves and for the child, such as better employment, housing, education, family support, getting away from family violence etc.

Of the studies that considered reasons for relocating, the main reasons for relocation were related to parental divorce, financial hardship, job advancements, family residential improvements, and remarriage (Fabricius & Braver, 2006;). Asher & Bloom (1983) found that the most frequent reason for moving cited by males was job considerations (55%), while females most often mentioned the presence of a social support system (65%). Forty percent (40%) of both male and female movers stated they left the community in which they had lived while married in order to create some physical distance between themselves and their former spouses. Forty-eight (48%) percent of the movers were returning to an area where they had lived previously. Fabricius and Braver (2006) found that many mothers were motivated to move to get away from their ex partner due to domestic violence concerns. Interestingly, Behrens and Smyth (2010) found that one of the main reasons for leaving of an Australian population was the need to find oneself.

Parkinson, Cashmore and Single (2011) found that seventy-nine reasons for moving were given by the 28 women interviewed. These reasons included: "Move closer to family and/or friends; returning home; lifestyle, including financial reasons; new partner; getting away; escaping violence; work/new job; education for children; and other" (p. 12). According to the fathers interviewed, the reasons included: "lifestyle including financial reasons; move closer to family/return home; work/new job; new start/'get away from me'; new partner" (p. 21).

4.2.2 Age of sample

The studies included a broad range of ages of both children and parents. For example, Freeman (2009) studied youth ages 0 – 18. In contrast, Fabricius and Braver (2006) focused on undergraduate students as young adults looking back in time. Given the nature of the studies, it is not possible to offer any conclusions about the age of the child and the impact of a relocation.

4.2.3 Children’s input into decision

A limited number of studies included discussions about the views and preferences of children when relocation was being decided. Taylor and Gallop (2010) included the results of interviews with 44 children who moved and they generally expressed acceptance of and satisfaction with their situation, whether or not they moved. Factors that were found to assist children in adjusting to relocation included: 1) making friends in the new location and getting involved in extracurricular and sports activities; 2) moving closer to extended family members; 3) moving at a younger age; 4) being able to take personal belongings and pets with them to the new location; and 5) having the support of their parents and siblings.

4.2.4 Resulting relationship with each parent

Braver, et al., (2003) found many negative effects of relocation for children. Both children moving away with mother and remaining with mother while father moved were significantly higher in distress than  children where both parents did not move. Children had better total rapport with their parents and saw both as role models significantly more when there had been no moves.

Regarding a child’s relationship with their father after relocation, Fabricius and Braver (2006) (using the same sample as Braver et al., 2003) found that move away status accounts for 4.5% of the variability in students' relationship with their fathers, which is similar to that accounted for by "domestic violence ever" (5%) and father hitting mother after the divorce (3%). Parental relocation after divorce itself showed to contribute to the negative impact on children's long-term relationships with their fathers, their adjustment to their parents' divorce, and their ongoing experience of their parents' relationship. These negative long-term outcomes could not be completely accounted for by exposure to parent conflict or domestic violence before, during or after the divorce. Likewise, Parkinson, et al., (2010) found that relocation of a child from a parent could lead to estrangement from the left-behind parent.

Studies documented that relocation can impact both parents’ relationships with their children but that the impact is different depending on the factors of the situation. Behrens & Smyth (2010) showed that relocation was rarely the end of a parent-child relationship, but rather could be seen as a significant point of transition which parents managed differently depending on their own parenting styles, their relationships, their personal resources and the support available to them. The authors described two types of long-distance parenting: 1) Separate Homes, Separate Lives: where parents knew little of the child's life with the other parent; 2) Parental Engagement in Both Locations: where the parent was actively involved in the child's life regardless where the child was.

4.2.5 Post relocation custody and contact arrangements

Behrens and Smyth (2010) found that almost half (48%) of the relocation cases involved parent-child contact that occurred on weekends and in school holidays before the court proceeding and an additional one third (30%) of cases involved little or no contact, or no overnight stays. The authors identified three groups to describe the most common patterns both pre- and post-relocation: 1) Rough Roads: most common, this group was characterized by a series of conflicts leading up to relocation request, often continuing after the relocation; 2) Smoother Paths: for this group, relocation was the main reason they were fighting, with conflict dissipating both pre- and post-relocation; and 3) Separate Pathways: the least common situation, where one of the parents has little to no contact with the children and other parent both pre- and post-relocation.

Once relocation occurred, Freeman (2009) found that non-moving parents experienced diminished contact with the child. Several parents reported that indirect contact (e.g. the use of the telephone and/or the Internet) designed to supplement the infrequent physical visits between a parent and child, rarely happened and could not be relied upon as a method of maintaining contact. Indeed, Parkinson, Cashmore & Single (2010) found that even when a request to the court for relocation was granted, contact did not always occur or it temporarily took place but then stopped over time. Where relocation does occur, contact can sometimes seem to end due to "estrangement", sometimes leading to children choosing not to see the parent they no longer live with/near .

Parkinson, Cashmore & Single (2010) found that access after a move could decrease due to estrangement, where the child no longer wants to visit their other parent. As well, there can be an issue with compliance, where parents do not follow the arrangements that the judge's decision  stipulated. Often this is in connection to the cost of travel required for access to occur as stated above.

Freeman (2009) found that the costs of international contact must be realistically considered by a court ordering contact, and must not be brushed aside as one of the burdens that a left-behind parent must bear. It may not be possible for the left behind parent to afford the cost of travel and the children may suffer as a result of little to no contact with that parent.

4.2.6 Economic impacts of relocation

Three studies found specific results related to the effect of mobility and relocation on income. Economic strain on both the mover and the non-moving parent was found to be associated with each parent’s amount of social support, whether they repartnered, and whether the non-moving parent changed residence. Parkinson, Cashmore, & Single (2010) found that finances are often cited as a motivation for relocation. Although not having a direct impact on income, both parties frequently face large financial burdens due to the cost of court and travel costs if relocation is granted.

4.2.7 The impact of relocation on children

The lack of longitudinal studies specific to relocation makes it difficult to assess the causal links regarding the consequences for children post relocation. In other words, without assessing parent-child relationships prior to relocation, it is not possible to make any inference about the potential contribution to relocation even if parent-child relationships are found to be strained post relocation. Behrens and Smyth (2010) did not find evidence regarding the negative psychological well-being of children after relocation. In contrast, other studies did show some negative effects on children and youth. Fabricius and Braver (2006) found, for example that relocation is a risk factor for children, over and above the risks associated with parent conflict and domestic violence. They did not find clear evidence that moves benefited children by reducing the levels of parent conflict from what they would have been had the move not occurred.

Interestingly, some studies showed specific effects of relocation on children based on gender of both the parents and the children. Braver, et al., (2003) found that children’s overall health was significantly lower when a student moved with his or her mother than when neither parent moved. Also primarily female students showed a decrease in health when relocated away from their father.

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