Putting the kids first: caring for children after separation.

AuthorRobertson, Jeremy


It is likely that the majority of separating couples make their own arrangements for the care of their children after separation. The aim of the Post Separation Parenting study was to explore how couples make these arrangements for the care of their children, without recourse to the Family Court. Using qualitative methods, the researchers interviewed a volunteer sample of 39 parents (including eight couples). Parents were asked how they decided on their current post-separation parenting arrangements and what factors they considered important in influencing the nature of the arrangements. They were also asked about changes in arrangements over time, satisfaction with current arrangements, and parents' need for information on separation. A predominant theme emerging from the interviews was the prioritisation of children's needs and best interests. Both mothers and fathers felt that children's ongoing contact with both parents was in their children's best interests. Couples reported putting aside relationship issues and working to keep these issues separate from ongoing parenting responsibilities. Although research has often focused on conflicted couples, this exploratory study suggests that further study of successful post-separation parenting might help guide parents through this very stressful time.


This paper will present the results of a recent study of parental decision-making with regard to post-separation parenting arrangements in a sample of parents who have largely avoided the use of the Family Court. As such, it presents an alternative focus to research that has focused on those parents in contested cases who attend the Family Court. It presents a brief outline of the relevant previous research, the goals of the study and the methods adopted. The findings are then discussed, and their implications for policy and practice are highlighted.

Parental separation is a common occurrence in New Zealand and other Western countries, with a quarter of children at some time living in a lone-parent household before age 15 (Pool et al. 2007). After separating, parents must make arrangements for the ongoing care of their children, but in New Zealand relatively little is known about the nature of these arrangements. Data from Statistics New Zealand suggest that, in the majority of cases, children live with their mothers. Census data from 2001 indicated that 82% of lone-parent households were headed by mothers (Statistics New Zealand 2007), a slightly lower proportion than in 1996. However, such figures are a poor representation of the often complex childcare arrangements for children post-separation (Callister and Birks 2006). In comparison to the level of information available in Australia (Smyth 2004, 2005, Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008), New Zealand has little national information on post-separation childcare arrangements.

We also know little about how parents make their post-separation care arrangements. Parents who are unable to agree between themselves about living arrangements for their children can call on the services of the Family Court. However, it is not known what percentage of those separating use the Family Court services or alternative support services (e.g. lawyers) to help them reach agreements. Recent research from the Ministry of Justice suggests that fewer than 10% of those approaching the Family Court required a defended hearing in order to settle their children's care arrangements (Ministry of Justice 2003).

There is some earlier research on the care arrangements made by those who had contact with the Family Court (Maxwell et al. 1990, Lee 1990). Maxwell et al. found that, in their sample of parents who had approached the Family Court (both for counselling and to make applications concerning property, "custody and access", and "domestic protection"), about half of all residence and contact issues were resolved privately without any help from the Court, with only a minority of separating couples seeking judicial intervention to resolve matters relating to children. They also found that those who were able to reach their own agreements about the care of their children were more likely to report being satisfied with the decisions than those who relied on counsellors, lawyers or judges to make a decision.

Lee (1990) surveyed divorcing couples who had obtained a dissolution of their marriage. Parents had been separated, on average, for about four years. Lee found that a sizeable proportion of children did not see their non-resident parent at all: one year after separation, 22% of resident parents and 16% of non-resident parents reported no contact between child and non-resident parent. Where contact was occurring, the majority of children tended to see their non-resident parent at least fortnightly: one year after separation, 50% of resident parents and 66% of non-resident parents reported this. In general, parents were satisfied with their current arrangements, with only 26% of non-resident parents reporting being dissatisfied with the arrangements six months after separation, compared with 12% of resident parents. While these studies give some indication of how those using the Family Court make arrangements, little is known about how parents who do not use the Family Court make decisions about their children's ongoing care.

An indication of the types of arrangements parents make may come from overseas research. In Australia, drawing on customised data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Smyth (2005) identified six patterns of parenting post-separation. Most common (34% of children) was what he termed "standard" care, which involved a set schedule of every weekend or every other weekend with the non-resident parent (usually the father), staying one or two nights. Daytime-only care (16% of children) and holiday-only care (10% of children) were more common than "shared" care, defined as at least 30% of nights with each parent (6% of children). However, a quarter of the children had little or no contact with their non-resident parent, and 7% had occasional contact. Kelly (2007) suggests that these patterns of contact are similar to those in the United States.

These studies give a picture of the arrangements in operation at a particular point in time. Comparing these data across time will enable researchers to examine changes in care arrangements in operation for different periods and to see if shared care is becoming more common. However, such data do not tell us if and how these individual arrangements change over time. While there is some evidence from overseas that some arrangements are more stable than others (Smyth and Moloney 2008), little is known about the factors that contribute to changes in arrangements.

The extent to which Australian and US findings can be applied to New Zealand is unclear. For example, it is not known to what extent cultural factors play a role in determining postseparation parenting arrangements. Given New Zealand's Maori and Pacific populations, overseas data may be limited as a guide to the...

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