Parent-child contact and post-separation parenting arrangements

Research Report No. 9 – July 2004

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Parent-child contact after divorce continues to attract much policy attention - perhaps because it remains a source of conflict for many parents. The recent House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs, which in late 2003 released its report on its Inquiry into Child Custody Arrangements Following Separation, attests to this policy interest and controversy.

In Australia, as elsewhere, not a great deal is known about the 'nuts and bolts' of parent-child contact. What are the most common patterns of parenting after separation? Why do parents opt for certain patterns of care? What factors facilitate or impede contact, particularly contact between fathers and their children, and how might these factors interact to influence different patterns and levels of care? And most importantly, are some patterns of care 'better' for children and parents than other patterns? This report of the Parent-Child Contact Study, by Institute researcher Bruce Smyth and the study team, explored these questions, making use of both qualitative and quantitative data to give the investigation both depth and breadth.

The analyses of the data reveal a number of interesting insights that will be of interest to researchers, family law practitioners and parents themselves. We hope the findings encourage researchers to continue to explore the issues addressed here, both by drilling down further into the detail and by testing the generalisibility of the findings on larger representative samples. The data on the diversity of solutions parents have found to parenting post-separation, and the challenges and pressures their children encounter, will be helpful both to family law professionals and to parents living the experience of parenting post-separation.

This report is the first of a series of outputs from the Institute's larger Caring for Children after Parental Separation Project, which together aim to shed light on a range of issues related to parent-child contact after parental separation. The issues are complex, and no easy solutions can be expected. However, empirical evidence on 'what happens' and 'what works' will help ensure that policy and practice best support child and family wellbeing. This is one of the key reasons that family law remains a central plank of research at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Ann Sanson
Acting Director Australian Institute of Family Studies
May 2004