Custody, Access and Child Support: Findings from The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth

II - THE COMPLEX FAMILY LIVES OF CANADIAN CHILDREN

Before turning to the specific questions about custody, living arrangements and child support, it is important to look at the extent to which the family circumstances of children have changed over the years. For example, it is important to know whether the proportion of children who are not born to first-time married parents is changing, and whether the risk of parental separation is linked to the type of union into which the children are born. To provide this context, we will summarize the main findings of work previously carried out by one of the authors. [2]

Increasing Numbers of Children are Being Born to Unmarried Parents

Thirty years ago, most children were born to first-time married parents, parents who had never cohabited nor previously lived with another partner. Today, almost as many children are born into two-parent families but, increasingly, their parents are not married. We will first examine the changes in Canada as a whole before turning to the situation in Ontario and Quebec, provinces where the changes have been the smallest and largest, respectively.

Figure 1: Family Context at Birth for Various Cohorts of Children--Canada

Figure 1: Family Context at Birth for Various Cohorts of Children--Canada

[ Description of Figure 1 ]

Sources: 1961-1963 Cohorts = Family History Survey 1984; 1971-1973 Cohorts = General Social Survey 1990; 1983-1984 and 1993-1994 Cohorts = NLSCY 1994-1995.

Figure 1, which presents the family context at birth for various cohorts of Canadian children, shows that nearly all children born in the early 1960s were born to parents who married without living together before (over 90 percent).[3] A small percentage (about 5 percent) of children were born to single mothers, that is, unmarried mothers who were not living with a partner. Strikingly, this percentage has not changed much over time. However, this fact has been masked by birth statistics that classified all births to unwed mothers as "illegitimate" until 1974. Since then, the more politically correct term "out-of-wedlock" has been used to refer to these births. The impression remains, however, that the births were occurring to single mothers who were not living with the fathers of their children. The situation has since changed radically. In the NLSCY 1993-1994 cohorts, children born to parents who married directly represented less than 40 percent of all births. The biggest changes were in the proportion of children born to married parents who first lived together (nearly 33 percent), and the proportion of children born to cohabiting parents (20 percent). These changes, however, did not occur uniformly across the country.

In Ontario, the proportion of births to common-law parents never reached the levels observed elsewhere in Canada: only 12 percent of the children in the youngest birth cohorts (1993-1994) of the NLSCY were children of common-law parents (Figure 2). Births to parents who had lived together before marrying rose to about 30 percent in those cohorts. Nevertheless, the main pattern in this province remained one in which children were born to married parents who had never lived together before getting married (almost 50 percent).

Figure 2: Family Context at Birth for Various Cohorts of Children--Ontario and Quebec

Figure 2: Family Context at Birth for Various Cohorts of Children--Ontario and Quebec

[ Description of Figure 2 ]

Sources: 1961-1963 Cohorts = Family History Survey 1984; 1971-1973 Cohorts = General Social Survey 1990; 1983-1984 and 1993-1994 Cohorts = NLSCY 1994-1995.

In contrast, the percentage of births to parents who married directly in Quebec was only 23 percent in the 1993-1994 cohorts. Barely half of all births were to married parents, including those who cohabited before, while 43 percent were to common-law couples. The proportion of out-of-wedlock births reached 50 percent if one takes into consideration children born to lone mothers, as do Statistics Canada and the Bureau de la statistique du Québec.

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