Friday 27 April 2012

Shared Time Parenting After Divorce - What the Research Says

This post comments on the government's plans to legislate about parenting arrangements after separation or divorce. I talk about the research evidence and show that introducing a legal presumption that families involved in court cases should split their children's time between two homes is likely to be bad for most of the children involved.


The Government has recently announced that it intends to introduce legislation about parenting arrangements after the separation or divorce of parents, contrary to the recommendations of its own independent report. The aim, it seems, is to emphasise the importance to children’s well-being of having both parents involved in their lives after separation, just as we assume they are both involved if the parents are together.  

As Professor Liz Trinder of Exeter University wrote in a comment piece on the Guardian website in February 2012, that sounds perfectly sensible – but it’s important to keep sight of the big picture in order to see why some of the plans being proposed are a bad idea from the point of view of the children involved.

First, let’s clarify what this debate is about. So far as I am aware, it's a fairly universally-held view that, if it is safe, children should have a strong and on-going relationship with both of their parents regardless of the status of the adults’ relationship with one another. That being the accepted position, this isn’t really a debate about the principle that children should have strong involvement from both parents – it’s a debate about the practical ways in which that principle should be applied.

In this post, I explain some of the recent research that has been done into the working of the family court and the effects of different care arrangements on children’s lives. The aim of this is to demonstrate why changing the law to promote shared time for children of separated parents is a misguided idea that will harm children.

Family Law – Facts and Myths:

A lot of people know someone who has been involved with the family courts, either as a parent or as a child. Despite this, research consistently shows that only about 10% of separating parents go to court about issues to do with their children. The large majority of parents sort things out without help from the court, either entirely privately or with other assistance from professionals (usually family solicitors, who are skilled at negotiating and settling cases).

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that many of the 10% who do end up in court are the most conflicted, the most bitter, and the most complicated cases. After all, these are the people who were unable to negotiate a settlement. Research shows that the cases that go to court have very high rates of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues and problems which often come close to needing intervention by social workers to safeguard the welfare of the children involved.

Despite these complications, the family courts adopt a strongly pro-contact position. They bend over backwards to promote relationships between parents and their children in the most challenging of circumstances, and have done their best to deal with the tricky problem of non-compliance with orders. (These cases are very complicated, because most of the ‘remedies’ that the law has impact badly on the children involved.)

Regardless of that, family law is repeatedly accused of being ‘anti-father’ and as excluding men from their children’s lives. Led by some fathers’ rights groups like Fathers4Justice and Real Fathers for Justice, the rhetoric that has taken hold is of the court colluding with hostile and vengeful mums to stop loving and blameless dads from seeing their kids. If that were true, it would be shocking and a matter for immediate and serious reform. But it’s not true – it’s a myth.

I’m not saying that there are no cases where something a bit like that might happen. I’m sure there are. The family justice system is very large and the courts deals with the best part of 100,000 cases about children’s relationships with their parents every year – no doubt there are a few cases where the judge gets it wrong (that’s why we have an appeal court!), or where not enough is done to stop mothers from keeping good fathers away from their kids. But these cases are a tiny and unrepresentative minority, and it is wrongheaded to call for reform of the entire system based on these examples. As I said in my last post, anecdotes make powerful stories, but they're a bad basis for making decisions when we have good research available.

Looking at the research, what we see is very different. The records for 2010 (the latest available) show that 95,500 cases went to court about children's contact arrangements. Of those, only 300 ended with the court specifically refusing to allow the father to see his child. That’s 0.31% of litigated cases – or, when you take into account that only10% of cases go to court in the first place, 0.031% of all separating families. In a few other litigated cases the application was withdrawn (2.29% of litigated cases) , and in a few others (0.88% of litigated cases) the court made ‘no order’ (which usually happens when the parents agree about the outcome during the course of the case). But in 96.52% of cases that went to court, judges made orders which involved at least some contact between both parents and their children.

The next question is whether those orders were for ‘meaningful’ amounts of contact, or whether they were token amounts. A high-quality piece of research by Joan Hunt and Alison Macleod investigated this question in 2008 by going to courts and looking through all the files from individual cases. This is incredibly time-consuming research, but it meant that Hunt and Macleod could say with absolute certainty what was going on in the courts.

And what did they find? Well, in almost all cases, the courts gave fathers exactly what they were asking for. If they asked to have the children stay with them one night a week, that’s what they got. If they asked for half the school holidays, that’s what they got. 

So what does all this tell us? That the family courts of England and Wales are not biased against fathers. The courts almost always make orders for contact, and those orders almost always reflect exactly what the fathers were asking for. Indeed, the bigger concern is that the courts are systematically downplaying the dangers to children and mothers of domestic violence in their zeal to promote father-child relationships.

Parenting Arrangements – Sharing Rights and Responsibilities:

A large part of the rhetoric around the post-separation parenting debate is about ‘sharing’ and ‘fairness’. It is sometimes said that, because the law ‘discriminates against fathers’, it would be better to have a rule that parents automatically share the upbringing of their children after separation. Again, that sounds sensible, but it’s important to unpack what it means.

The first thing to ask is about the extent to which parents who live in the same household actually share the everyday parenting responsibilities for their children’s upbringing. Some do, of course, but the more common pattern is for one parent to take responsibility for the majority of childcare. For a number of reasons too complicated to cover here, that person is more often the mother. (I am stating this simply as a fact, not trying to give it any normative endorsement.)

Next, we need to know something about the law. When the last major reform of child law took place in 1989, a split was made between the legal rights, responsibilities and authority about children’s upbringing – which was termed ‘parental responsibility’ – and the practical everyday aspects of children’s upbringing – where they should live, how much time they should spend with each parent, which school they should go to, whether they should have a religious upbringing or not, and so on.

Following reforms to the law in 2002, almost all parents have parental responsibility automatically – and those who do not have it automatically can usually get it easily enough. In fact, research shows the courts are often willing to give parental responsibility to parents who have absolutely no involvement in their children’s lives as a ‘label’ or ‘badge’. (One particularly revealing case involved giving parental responsibility to a man who had been convicted of paedophilic offences and who was deemed so dangerous to his children that he was forbidden from contacting them in any way. Cases where PR is refused are rare and extreme.)

The fight cannot, therefore, be about shared parental rights and responsibilities as a matter of law, because these things are already shared in virtually all cases. Just in case this needs to be made any clearer (though I can’t really see that there is much room for misunderstanding), the provisions in the law on parental responsibility could be changed to state explicitly that parents share it. This change would make no legal difference at all – that is already the case – but if it makes the message clearer then I cannot see the harm.

Parenting Arrangements – Shared Time?

Where I do see real dangers, though, is in making any legislative changes at all that start to dictate particular outcomes in favour of shared time for children between their parents. The law at the moment says simply that the court must make the welfare of the child the paramount consideration. The focus is all on the child. Parents’ rights are not the issue – the only thing that the court thinks about is what is best for the kids. Shared time legislation, on the other hand, is about adults – it treats children as things that can be split in half and divided up equally so as to be fair to the parents.

It’s particularly important to remember how few cases are decided in court, and how conflicted they are. If people who get on well and who can reach amicable agreements want to organise their childcare with a more or less equal division of time between two households, that can work quite well. Recent research in the UK shows that about 3.1% of separated parents outside the court choose to do this. Large-scale research in Australia shows that where parents get on well and can be flexible about the arrangements from one day to the next, shared time can work well for the kids involved.

However, two characteristics rarely found amongst parents who end up litigating in the family court are an ability to get on well with each other, and a flexible approach to the other parent. These 10% of people are highly conflicted and have major difficulties with their parenting – and the government is planning to introduce a presumption that these people, of all people, should split the care of their kids 50/50 between two households?? This is a recipe for disaster, and flies in the face of huge amounts of robust and careful research.

Research shows that shared time can be a good option for some kids, though it is not clear that shared time is any better or worse than having primary care with one parent and contact with the other. But for other kids – and this is the important part – shared time is clearly worse than primary care with one parent and contact with the other. So who are the kids who do worse with shared time?

Put simply, shared time is bad for children when any of the following characteristics is present:
  • there are concerns about violence (either directly towards the children or, more commonly, by one parent towards the other)
  • there is high conflict between the parents
  • there is a very rigid and inflexible arrangement of sharing the child’s time between the two households.
Okay, so now think back to the characteristics of the separating parents who end up in court. What did we see? High levels of violence, high levels of conflict, high levels of inflexibility. The research clearly shows that most people who end up in court arguing about parenting arrangements will not be well suited to a shared time arrangement, because the people who end up in court tend to have problematic relationships which make shared time bad for their kids.  

To be honest, none of this surprises me. If I had to pack a bag and move house every 3 days, I wouldn’t be very happy and I wouldn’t do so well at work either. Adults who do this as part of their job find it very dissatisfactory and, in general, try to avoid doing it for any prolonged period.  Then add in the high levels of conflict, inflexibility or violence between people in the two households, and it sounds like a nightmare. Why on earth do we think that kids, whose worlds are still developing and who find it harder to think about things in a long-term way, would find this a good way to live.


Constant moving from one household to another is hard work, physically and emotionally. The research shows that the kids who do well with split time find their living arrangements manageable and do-able if they feel at home in both houses, and where both parents work cooperatively and flexibly to make the arrangements child-focused. If the parents can do that, then great. But if the parents can’t even be cooperative and flexible enough to make arrangements without going to court, there is nothing that the court can do to help, and imposing shared time arrangements on uncooperative and inflexible parents will be damaging for the children concerned.

In general, kids should have strong, on-going relationships with both their parents so long as it is safe to do so. The irony is that trying to encourage an equal split of time amongst the conflicted parents who end up in court is likely to lead to the exact opposite. All children are different, of course, but the consistent message from research around the world is that kids hate rigid clock-based care arrangements. Moreover, there is no reason to think that more time equals a better relationship between a parent and his or her child. What matters is the quality of the time that the parents spend with their children and whether they are good parents – better to have a really great weekend than a really stressful week.

So, despite the attractive rhetoric of sharing and fairness, it is important that the law not be changed to favour shared time parenting. Sharing and fairness are about adults. When we keep our eyes on the children whose lives we are discussing, shared time is demonstrably a bad option.