Family Matters No. 88 - August 2011

Institute seminars

Relocation disputes in separated families prior to the 2006 reforms: An empirical study

Dr Rae Kaspiew, Senior Research Fellow, Australian Institute of Family Studies

Seminar held at the Institute on 15 February 2011

Report by Shaun Lohoar

In a country as geographically large as Australia, disputes over relocation between separating parents potentially have serious consequences for their children, particularly where considerable distances are involved. Some argue that it is too easy for the courts to grant such relocations; however, Dr Rae Kaspiew presented evidence to the contrary in this seminar.

Dr Kaspiew, a socio-legal researcher with particular expertise in family law and family violence, presented the findings of an investigation, funded by the Australian Research Council, aimed at understanding more about the experiences of parents and children after court decisions about relocation. The study was commissioned following the Every Picture Tells a Story report, which highlighted a need for judges to have more information about the aftermath of family law court decisions.

The mixed methods research project examined all relocation cases that were decided by the Family Court of Australia (FCoA) in a two-year period prior to the introduction of the family reform package. Qualitative data was sourced from 38 in-depth interviews with separated parents who had a contested orders in relation to relocation, from either the FCoA, the Federal Magistrates Court or the Family Court of Western Australia, between 2002 and mid-2005.

It becomes clear that without legislative provisions, judges have a difficult job in deciding whether to grant relocations to some separating parents, particularly given the dynamic, complex and multi-layered reasons given by applicants to relocate. For example, FCoA data shows that only 8% of applicants' primary reason to relocate was to escape violence and threats, yet for 27 of the 38 interview respondents, the relocation proposal was just one of many issues over which there had been parental conflict and/or court proceedings. In many cases, relocation disputes frequently occur in the context of highly conflicted inter-parental relationships, where family violence is a common occurrence. In this sense, the interview data suggests that relocation is often a product of conflict, rather than a cause of conflict.

Dr Kaspiew noted that while the complexities and multi-faceted reasons given for relocation are not necessarily reflected in the way in which matters are litigated, judges are in many cases getting it right in terms of protecting children from violence. This is demonstrated by the 64% of cases who were successfully granted relocation for reasons of escaping violence. While this satisfies the pre-reform case law principle that the child's best interest be considered paramount, the principle of the right of children to have contact with both parents remained a contentious issue where conflict persists.

The pathways taken by separating parents before, during and after their relocation disputes offer some clues about the nature of their conflicts. Dr Kaspiew presented three patterns that surfaced from the analysis. First, most relationships were conflicted throughout the whole process, with parents experiencing "rough roads"; second, some parents had "smoother pathways", where their relationships improved; and third, a small number of parents took "separate pathways", where the relationship diminished completely.

It was emphasised that despite the commonalities evident from the patterns, the interview data also suggested that the circumstances of children vary widely, depending on a variety of factors: parental capacity, parents ability to "move on" and focus on the children, and the emotional and financial capacity of parents to sustain relationships with the children.

Given the complexity, dynamics and multi-layered nature of the issues to be considered, judges have a difficult task in making decisions over relocation disputes. While this study provides some links between pre-court situations and post-court developments, larger scale testing would contribute further to the debate over whether relocation matters should be subject to special legislative provisions.

Short-term physical, emotional and financial well-being after separation: Does initiator status make a difference?

Dr Belinda Hewitt, Senior Research Fellow, University of Queensland

Seminar held at the Institute on 15 March 2011

Report by John De Maio

Dr Hewitt's main research interests include investigating the different consequences of initiating separation for men and women and the health consequences of relationship transitions. In this seminar, she described research that she and her collaborators had undertaken examining differences in health and economic outcomes after separation and the extent of any differences in these outcomes between "initiators" and "non-initiators" of separation.

Dr Hewitt noted that the research in this area indicates that married people "do better" on a range of health and wellbeing indicators when compared with the unmarried. The previous research also shows that separation and divorce negatively impact on health outcomes and income, particularly for women with children. This project aimed to investigate whether these negative consequences of separation in terms of health and income are the same for everyone and if these differences depend on who initiated the separation.

The study was undertaken by analysing the longitudinal dataset from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) study. The project followed HILDA respondents who were legally married at the time of the first wave of data collection, and identified respondents' transitions from marriage to separation over eight waves of data collection. Two separate analyses were conducted, with differences in key health and income outcomes according to which respondent initiated separation being explored within the framework of a random effects statistical model.

After controlling for a range of demographic and economic factors, the statistical modelling revealed that initiators had better physical and mental health outcomes when compared to non-initiators. Furthermore, men's physical health was comparably worse than women's after separation. Another interesting result that arose from this analysis was that people who reported jointly initiated separations were found to have the best health overall, and oftentimes better than married respondents.

In terms of the effects of separation on income, no relationship was found between income after separation and initiation status for men in their sample. The study also found an unexpected result, with women who initiated separation having lower household income immediately after the separation. Dr Hewitt hypothesised that this may be due to either a divergence between expected and actual income, or that factors such as life satisfaction or children's wellbeing, rather than financial aspects, were the main consideration in separation. She also noted that for this group, income recovered to a similar pre-separation level by the following year.

Dr Hewitt concluded her seminar by highlighting that the consequences of marital separation are not the same for everyone, with outcomes being dynamic over time for those who separate. These outcomes, particularly key health and economic outcomes, vary depending on who initiated the separation and the time since separation.

Disadvantage across the generations: What do we know about social and economic mobility in Australia?

Professor Deborah Cobb-Clark, Director of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research

Seminar held at the Institute on 14 April 2011

Report by Elaine Kong

In this seminar, Professor Deborah Cobb-Clark discussed the issues associated with inter-generational mobility. Inter-generational mobility is the extent to which children's outcomes, such as health, education and career decisions, differ to those of their parents - the opposite of inter-generational persistence.

Professor Cobb-Clark's presentation drew from the recent OECD report on the inter-generational transmission of disadvantage, which provided evidence that children largely "inherit" their parents' socio-economic status. She explored this finding further and related the OECD report's conclusions to the Australian context by presenting results from the Youth In Focus study.

Professor Cobb-Clark began by explaining the importance of understanding inter-generational mobility, which has the potential to reduce inequality, promote social justice and distribute resources more fairly. It may also contribute to greater economic efficiency by ensuring that individuals' talents are fully utilised. Income is a common measure of social and economic mobility and, theoretically, we usually link children's incomes to those of their parents. If there is a high level of income inequality among parents, then children of high-income parents will have a substantial advantage. Therefore, intergenerational income persistence will be higher and income mobility will be lower when children "inherit" their parents' financial status.

It was noted that Australia's status on the elasticity of intergenerational earnings is average when compared to other OECD countries. However, education is one of the major determinants of whether economic disadvantage is passed on from one generation to the next. The family structure gap between single-parent households and couple households is significant in Australia; children of single parents obtained lower than average mathematical test scores (as a proxy of educational outcomes), when compared to the United States, Canada and Switzerland. Professor Cobb-Clark suggested that the government could reduce inter-generational persistence progressively by tailoring government policy to weaken the link between parents' education levels and their children's educational outcomes, through targeting resources to children.

Professor Cobb-Clark supported this suggestion by presenting findings from the Youth In Focus study, a longitudinal study of 18-year-olds that looks at the consequences of growing up in a family with a history of income support. Comparisons were made between mother and child reports on attitudes to work and welfare and its link to family income support. The study findings suggest that Australian children's attitudes about income support receipt and being successful in life are clearly linked to those of their mothers. The study also shows that these attitudes appear to be influenced by the family's history with the income support system. Children who grow up in families where members are welfare recipients are more likely to rely upon social assistance and income support as adults. However, only some of the link between attitudes and receipt of income support appears causal, as the study results alone do not demonstrate an emerging culture of welfare dependency in Australia. Professor Cobb-Clark stated that the Youth In Focus study provided a number of possible reasons as to why disadvantage may be passed from parents to children in Australia. Aside from income support, further research is needed to investigate whether other driving factors contribute to disadvantage.

Professor Cobb-Clark concluded that the optimal degree of socio-economic mobility is unclear. However, low mobility suggests that children's outcomes are affected by factors over which they have no control and high mobility suggests that parents have little ability to influence their child's outcomes. She emphasised that the way in which social policy is designed and delivered affects the degree of inter-generational mobility, and a broad approach is needed for the development of future policies.

Investment in children in Australia: Do current patterns point towards increased intergenerational mobility in the future?

Professor Gerry Redmond, Senior Research Fellow, Social Policy Research Centre

Seminar held at the Institute on 10 May 2011

Report by Cindy Tarczon

The main focus of Professor Redmond's research at the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales is child poverty and wellbeing in Australia and internationally, with a particular focus on poverty and inequality, infant mortality and children's perspectives on their wellbeing.

His seminar on investment in children in Australia and its impact on intergenerational mobility spoke to its effect on social policy in Australia over the past 30 years. Recognised as a key indicator of social inequity, government policy has increasingly recognised the importance of investment in children. Greater public investment in the early years has been found to produce more equitable outcomes, as the effects of early interventions disproportionately benefit the most disadvantaged children. Investment in the early years is one of the few public policies that do not have an equity/productivity trade-off. As such, both public and private investments have had a specific focus on early childhood interventions during the era of the current government, with spending on children viewed as an investment to secure profitable returns.

Australia is about average in terms of overall investment in children, but compares poorly in provisions aimed specifically at very young children. Nonetheless, it performs well on some indicators, particularly cash support for families with young children. Overall expenditure on children has been on the rise since the Hawke-Keating government famously launched its pledge to "eliminate child poverty" through increased family payments, encouraging parents - especially lone parents - into employment, with reduced tax-transfer disincentives and support for child care. Professor Redmond noted that it was also the first time that Additional Pension and Benefit rates for children were effectively indexed to inflation. One of the most important changes to occur in 1993 was payments for low-income families in work and on benefits, which were integrated into a single payment called the Additional Family Payment. It became one of the few systems of family assistance that provided integrated support for low income families in and outside the workforce. In addition, this meant that the principal carer in couple families - usually the mother - became entitled to payments, rather than the primary benefit recipient, usually the father.

During that same period, there were also significant increases in public expenditure on cash transfers for families and children, which were associated with a drop in child poverty rates and were further assisted by policies aimed at encouraging single parents into the workforce. Professor Redmond pointed out that growth in overall expenditure on welfare services was considerably greater than the increase in average government spending during the 1990s, and also greater than population growth, suggesting a real increase per head. Investment in primary and secondary education also benefited from significant investment, with the policy focus being on creating skilled and competitive workers for the labour market.

While Professor Redmond acknowledged that public investment in children appears to be equalising - in that they benefit children in low income households the most - it is a mixed story on what the drivers of intergenerational mobility actually are. As examination of this picture becomes broader, the causal relationships are less clear. Much investment in children comes not through direct provision of public services but is provided by parents and other relatives either through time spent with the child or through expending their own resources for the benefit of their children. We do not as yet appear to be in a position to understand the impact of these investments on child wellbeing, or on inequalities in child outcomes. However, when considering impacts, we need to consider that such investment does not take place in a vacuum, but can reinforce or moderate other demographic, social and economic developments.