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

5.0 Discussion, Cautions and Conclusions

Professionals dealing with relocation cases have a number of factors to consider from social science research on children and families. The main issues that impact relocation case decisions include: the non-residential parent’s continued relationship with their children; the potential benefits for and risks to children related to relocation ; the need for long-distance parenting plans in the event of a move; and the rights of the parent wishing to relocate.

Despite the growing literature regarding relocation, there remains uncertainty about the potential impact of relocation on children and parents based on the current available evidence. Warshak (2003) notes that relocation “brings potential benefits to children along with the hazards… weighing and integrating all of these factors is a tall order. Even decisions that appear at first glance to be easy may carry unexpected consequences.” (p. 381)

Given the lack of high quality social science research on the factors associated with relocation and outcomes for children, the most appropriate analysis should focus on the best interests of each particular child on a case-by-case basis. As noted by Kelly and Lamb (2003):

…it is seldom possible to identify the predictable and universal consequences of any event as complex as parental divorce or relocation. In the case of relocation, both benefits and costs typically exist, and must be contrasted when determining how children’s interests might best be served. In every case, it is thus important to evaluate the potential costs and benefits of both permitting and prohibiting the children’s relocation. (p.202)

In each individual case, factors to be considered include: the stated reasons for relocation by the moving parent; any past history of domestic violence and the level of safety created by the move; how the move will enhance the quality of life for the moving parent and child; reasons for opposing relocation by the non-moving parent; the impact of the move on the relationship between the non-moving parent and child; the views and preferences of the child; the age and developmental stage of the child, family and friend relationships of the child at the current and proposed residences; the level of engagement by both parents in the child’s academic and extracurricular activities; the child’s family and extended social support available at each location; and the opportunity for the child to remain in contact with the non-moving parent via technology (e.g. videoconference, email, instant message) should the move be permitted (Austin 2012; Bala & Harris, 2006; Glennon, 2008; Henaghan, 2011; Saini, Mishna, Barnes & Polak, 2013; Warshak, 2003).

Currently, a general consensus amongst social science researchers appears to be emerging that the best way to decide relocation cases is to provide individual assessments of each case presented, without an assumption for or against relocation and with “the best interests” standard as paramount in each assessment (Austin, 2012).

The lack of guidance provided by the social science evidence clearly supports the need to consider the individual factors of each case rather than making broad assumptions about who should and should not move post separation and divorce. The social science research literature, is replete with contradictory findings on the importance of the child’s relationship with both the custodial and non-custodial parent. It remains unclear how to best apply the various research findings when weighing relocation options. Henaghan (2011) reached a similar conclusion:

Social science can report the experiences of children and parents after separation, and measure how children cope. The difficulty lies in deciding which variables should be given weight in determining outcomes for each particular child. The variables range from the child’s own particular internal resources, to the physical and economic surroundings they live in, through to their relationships with parents, peers and others in their life. Determining which one, or combination of these variables, leads to which outcomes is not a precise task. We simply cannot know how life would have been different if a child had, or had not, relocated with a parent (p. 235).

5.1 Considerations and Cautions

5.1.1 The state of the evidence

The extant body of empirical research on relocation comprising 11 studies was reviewed and assessed by conventional standards of quality in order to draw empirically supported general conclusions. As a group the empirical studies were found to be methodologically weak with very limited ability to generalize the results of any one study. The clinician should be wary of the numerous knowledge claims in this field and realize that the empirically supported findings are relatively few. It should be cautioned, however, that these conclusions are likely to change as new and better quality of research becomes available.

5.1.2 Reason for the move

There are a variety of reasons why parents may want to move following separation and divorce. These can include economic reasons, employment opportunities, to return to their place of origin, to be closer to their supports.

5.1.3 Age of the child

To date, there are no defensible estimates of the impact of relocation based on the children’s age. It is important, however, to consider each individual child’s development, temperament, resiliency and social networks.

5.1.4 Post relocation custody and access arrangements

There has been little systematic follow-up of the potential negative or positive consequences of relocation on children. Retrospective accounts provide some indication of the potential consequences but these are plagued by bias and errors in attribution. Findings are mixed about whether any effects of relocation are longstanding and it seems related to variables uncontrolled in the current evidence.

5.1.5 Children’s views

There is a lack of attention in the literature regarding children’s views and preferences about relocation. More attention regarding the views and perspectives of children is needed to help inform practice and policy decisions. With the focus on confidentiality and anonymity, social science research involving children’s views (e.g. surveys, interviews) provides a unique opportunity to listening to children’s thoughts and feelings without further involving them in the conflict between their parents.

5.1.6 Outcomes of relocation

The problem with assessing the outcomes of relocation is that the data used to test these multivariate models have all been derived from cross-sectional studies that are unable to assess the directionality of effects. Only longitudinal studies can ensure that independent variables precede dependent variables in time in order to assert causal direction. As a result, the mixed results about the outcomes of relocation points to the variability of outcomes across families and that each situation should be considered individually rather than making broad generalizations.

5.1.7 Treatment/Intervention

No studies were located to examine the potential benefits of treatment and interventions to support parent-child relationships during and after relocation.

5.2 Conclusion

The negative impact of divorce on children is well documented in the research, as are the protective factors that mitigate the negative impact that divorce and separation can have on children (Austin, 2012, Bala & Harris, 2006, Glennon, 2008, and Wallerstein & Tanke, 1996). What is less clear is how this research applies to relocation. Wallerstein & Tanke (1996) note that relocation for a child who has already experienced the divorce of their parents can represent yet another incident of trauma, while other research identifies the correlation between the well being of the custodial parent and the well-being of the child (Gelnnon, 2008).

Methodological issues in relocation research have also contributed to the contrasting and un-clear findings on relocation. Different definitions of ‘moving’, different outcome variables, different ways of measuring each outcome variable, and different ages of children studied has impacted the ability of professionals to draw clear findings and implications from the relocation research (McLeod, 2006). Unfortunately there is surprisingly little empirical research evidence about relocation disputes and the impact they have on family members to assist the courts with this task (Braver, Ellman & Fabricius, 2003).

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