As Canadian divorce courts increasingly rule in favour of parents sharing child custody, Beth Archer-Kuhn says the legal system is well positioned to facilitate better education and support to parents navigating the challenges of shared decision-making.
The social work doctoral candidate (BSW ‘86, MSW ’91), working with advisor Jill Grant, a social work associate professor, says before new policies are drafted, she recommends considering parental experiences of child custody. She says parents need help focusing on the needs of their children, and preventing the needs of the adult from taking precedence.
“The post separation period can be stressful for many parents, who are adjusting to their new family structure, and positive communication about the children can be a significant challenge,” says Archer-Kuhn.
Archer-Kuhn says she could not find any research focusing specifically on how parents perceive and experience child custody decision making. She says previous research into shared parenting has included interviews or surveys with judges, children, lawyers and social workers, but not parents.
“There’s a sense sometimes that parents don’t know what’s good for them, that they don’t understand their own experience,” says Archer-Kuhn. “But, when talking about making change to legislation, it’s important that everyone has a chance to be heard and voice their own experience.”
The study includes interviews with 18 parents who completed the Mandatory Information Program (MIP). MIP is an information session for those in Ontario who are seeking a divorce or change in motion regarding child custody.
Participants in Archer-Kuhn’s study reported the MIP session is a good start, but for some parents it contained an overwhelming amount of information, dealt out in too short a time period.
Another potential area for change, says Archer-Kuhn, comes from more narrowly defining family situations. MIP sessions, as well as research, only differentiate families into two categories, low and high conflict. Archer-Kuhn says families would benefit from having their unique situations acknowledged, especially families experiencing domestic violence.
“The research I came across, also did not differentiate family violence from other families,” says Archer-Kuhn. “When we talk about policies and interventions, we need to consider the heterogeneous needs of these families.”
A major difference between these groups, she says, is that power is generally balanced between parents in high conflict situations, but when domestic violence is part of the family experience, power is always imbalanced, so decision-making is far more challenging.
“When you more narrowly define the parental experience, it becomes clearer how to solve shared parenting debates,” says Archer-Kuhn. “But it must happen before custody is assigned if we are going to offer something of real use to high conflict families, and to families experiencing violence.”
Archer-Kuhn says all the parents she interviewed were clear about their desire - whether achievable or not - to share decision making and ensure both parents had contact with their children. However, they said communication can fall apart when one parent stops putting the child’s needs first, particularly in situations of domestic violence and in situations of high conflict.
She says parents can also feel isolated, when too many people are called in to negotiate decision making.
“When parents feel they are making decisions alone, they’ll often seek outside support through other family members, friends, lawyers, social workers, and this can lead to conflict because the more people involved in a situation, the less a parent may feel they are still a part of decision- making.”
Archer-Kuhn says her findings point toward parents needing more support when navigating child custody challenges.
“Some parents may learn how to communicate more positively if they are provided further information, and then it may be possible to have a presumption of shared parenting,” says Archer-Kuhn.
“But the courts need to consider the parent experience when discussing family law reform to include a legal and social service system, which differentiates parental experience and is reflected in policy and practice, including education and support.”