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

III - WHEN PARENTS SEPARATE: CANADIAN CHILDREN FROM BROKEN FAMILIES AND THE LAW

As we have seen, increasing numbers of children from broken homes were born to parents who did not marry. How then do these parents settle the issues of custody, access and child support and what kind of impact do these decisions have on the day-to-day lives of the children? Do unmarried parents act differently when they separate, or is the care of the children settled in a similar way regardless of the type of union?

Children from Broken Families Come Disproportionately from Common-Law Unions

Of all children from birth to age 11 born in a two-parent family who were sampled by the NLSCY, 13 percent were born into a common-law union that had not been formalized into a marriage at the time of the survey. The majority of children (52 percent) were born to couples who had not lived together before marriage and another 32 percent were born to married parents who had first lived together (See Figure 6).

Figure 6: Distribution of Children Aged 0-11 and of Children from Broken Families, According to Type of Parents' Union--Canada--NLSCY 1994-1995

Figure 6: Distribution of Children Aged 0-11 and of Children from Broken Families, According to Type of Parents' Union--Canada--NLSCY 1994-1995

[ Description of Figure 6 ]

Looking only at children whose parents have separated, we see that the distribution is quite different: only 30 percent of these children came from married couples who had not lived together before marriage and a slightly greater proportion (34 percent) were from common-law couples who had not married at the time of the survey. Children born to common-law unions were clearly over-represented among children who experienced the break-up of their families. Moreover, when we look at the data by birth cohort, the trend is clearly more pronounced for the younger cohorts (see Table 1). As the percentage of children born to common-law unions increases, it naturally makes up a larger proportion of all children who have experienced their parents' separation. Among children from broken families in the 1983-1984 cohorts, 21 percent had parents living common-law and that proportion jumped to 54 percent for the 1991-1992 cohorts.

It will be seen below that the type of broken union has an impact on the likelihood that the parents will obtain a court order for custody and child support.

Table 1: Distribution of All Children and of Children from Broken Families 1 by Cohort and Type of Parental Union at Time of Birth--NLSCY, Cycle 1, 1994-1995

1983-1984 Cohorts (10-11 years)
Birth Cohorts Common-
Law
Common-
Law,
Married Since
Marriage,
Common-
Law
Before
Marriage,
No
Common-
Law
Before
Total N 2
All children 6.9 3.5 25.8 63.7 100 3574
Children from broken families 21.2 4.9 31.8 42.1 100 733

1985-1986 Cohorts (8-9 years)
Birth Cohorts Common-
Law
Common-
Law,
Married Since
Marriage,
Common-
Law
Before
Marriage,
No
Common-
Law
Before
Total N
All children 8.3 4.1 31.4 56.2 100 3514
Children from broken families 27.1 6.6 32.9 33.4 100 594

Cohortes de 1987-1988 (6-7 ans)
Birth Cohorts Common-
Law
Common-
Law,
Married Since
Marriage,
Common-
Law
Before
Marriage,
No
Common-
Law
Before
Total N
1987-1988 Cohorts (6-7 years) 12.6 3.9 31.2 52.3 100 3344
Children from broken families 34.0 6.9 32.5 26.6 100 532

1989-1990 Cohorts (4-5 years)
Birth Cohorts Common-
Law
Common-
Law,
Married Since
Marriage,
Common-
Law
Before
Marriage,
No
Common-
Law
Before
Total N
All children 13.6 3.5 33.8 49.1 100 3512
Children from broken families 48.6 2.6 31.0 17.8 100 425

1991-1992 Cohorts (2-3 years)
Birth Cohorts Common-
Law
Common-
Law,
Married Since
Marriage,
Common-
Law
Before
Marriage,
No
Common-
Law
Before
Total N
All children 18.3 2.6 34.8 44.3 100 3429
Children from broken families 53.5 1.6 28.9 16.0 100 254

Were these findings observed uniformly across the country? Yes, with the exception of Quebec where the trend was more pronounced. In Quebec, a larger proportion of all NLSCY children were born to common-law couples (29 percent), so it is not surprising to find that children born to these couples constitute a larger fraction (50 percent) of those children who experienced a family break-up (See Figure 7).

Figure 7: Distribution of Children Aged 0-11 and of Children from Broken Families, According to Type of Parents' Union--Quebec--NLSCY 1994-1995

Figure 7: Distribution of Children Aged 0-11 and of Children from Broken Families, According to Type of Parents' Union--Quebec--NLSCY 1994-1995

[ Description of Figure 7 ]

The next question to address is how custody and child support are resolved, whether or not the parents were married. Is the existence of a custody or child support court order linked to the type of union (marriage, common-law) and to the legal status of the separation (divorce, legal separation, de facto separation)? To begin answering this question, we first examine the trends in divorce rates among married couples.

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