Contact with children after divorce or separation
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An analysis of the situation of separated parents in terms of the frequency and quality of contact with their child is of great interest. Scientific literature shows that divorce or separation has a negative effect on the development and well-being of children, and that the time parents spend with their child is one of the most important factors in the child's development (see Gendered Effects of Parental Separation on Child Time Investments: A Longitudinal Time-Diary Approach).
This analysis offers interesting insights using data from the 2017 General Social Survey (GSS) – Family. It provides an overview of contact between separated or divorced parents and their children aged 18 or younger who were not in their sole custody prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the purpose of this article, the term "child" is used to refer to children aged 18 or younger, while "parent without sole custody of a child" refers to any parent whose child has lived with them part-time in the last year, spending the rest of the time with the second parent (shared custody), or a child that lives full-time with the second parent (sole custody for the ex-spouse or ex-partner).
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, distancing measures and restrictions on movements from one household to another were implemented. These restrictions could have had a greater impact on some parents of young children. This was particularly true for those who do not live full-time with their child and those whose child lives solely with the second parent following a divorce or separation.
This analysis identifies the characteristics of parents who have had to deal with such restrictions. While highlighting the differences between mothers and fathers and between regions, the study examines the frequency of physical contact and communication between parents and the child for whom they do not have sole custody (i.e., the child was in shared custody or lived solely with the other parent). Parents' level of satisfaction regarding time spent with the child is also examined. The analysis looks at people aged 20 and older who, at the time of the survey, had at least one child aged 18 or younger from a union (marriage or common-law) that ended within the previous 20 years (i.e., between 1997 and 2017), and whose ex-spouse or ex-partner is still living. It analyzes the frequency of contact and communication between the parent and child during the periods when the child was not living with them. For parents with shared custody, it is a question of contact while the child was with the other parent.
In 2017, three in five parents with at least one child from a previous union did not have sole custody of the child
In 2017, according to data from the GSS on Family, approximately 5.3 million people aged 20 and older in Canada went through a divorce or separation in the previous 20 years. Nearly one-quarter (1.2 million) had at least one biological or adopted child aged 18 or younger with their ex-spouse or ex-partner at the time of the breakup.
Approximately one in three parents (34%) had sole custody of their child, while 63% did not have sole custody. Those who did not have sole custody either shared custody with the ex-spouse or ex-partner (53%) or they did not have custody at all (10%). Parents with shared custody includes parents whose child lived with them part-time, and part-time with the other parent, regardless of the time period spent with either. Mothers (50%) were more likely to have sole custody than fathers (10%).
This study examines physical and virtual contact with the child during periods when the child was not with the respondent. The rest of the analysis will therefore look at parents with shared custody and those whose child lives solely with their ex-spouse or ex-partner. As a result, parents who had sole custody of their child are excluded from the analysis.
In 2017, Quebec had the highest proportion of separated or divorced parents who did not have sole custody of their children. This regional difference is most noticeable among mothers. There were relatively more mothers in Quebec who did not have sole custody of their children than in other regions. Among fathers, only those living in Ontario and British Columbia differed significantly from fathers in Quebec in terms of the low percentage of parents without sole custody.
One in two parents regularly saw their child, for whom they did not have sole custody, while the child was not living with them
According to the 2017 GSS, half (52%) of parents who did not have sole custody of their child saw them regularly (i.e., at least once per week) when the child was not living with them. This was true for both mothers and fathers. There was no statistically significant difference between the proportion of mothers and of fathers who saw their children regularly (at least once per week). About one in four parents (21%) saw their child less than once per week and 25% never saw the child while they were living with the ex-spouse or ex-partner. Fathers (29%) were almost three times more likely than mothers (11%) to see their child less than once a week. In addition, compared with mothers (31%), fathers (21%) were less likely to never see their child when the child was with the other parent.
Half of parents (55%) who did not have sole custody of their child lived less than 10 kilometres from the home of the ex-spouse or ex-partner and could facilitate regular physical contact when the child was with the other parent. In fact, 64% of parents living less than 10 kilometres from the home of the ex-spouse or ex-partner saw their child regularly, compared with 36% of those who lived 10 kilometres away or more.
The Atlantic provinces (66%) had the highest proportion of parents who saw their child regularly when not living with them, while Quebec (46%) had the lowest proportion. Regular physical contact was less common among mothers in Quebec (47%), whereas for fathers, it was less common in British Columbia (45%).
In addition, while the GSS provides an overview of the frequency of parent–child contact from the parents' point of view, the 2019 Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth (CHSCY) provides information from the perspective of children aged 1 to 17 (see box).
In 2019, nearly half (44%) of children whose parents had divorced or separated and who were in contact with the other parent saw that parent regularly.
According to the CHSCY, in 2019, nearly one in five children under the age of 18 (18%) had experienced a parental divorce or separation. The percentage of children in this situation was relatively higher in Quebec (23%) than in other provinces and territories (17%).
Among children who had experienced parental divorce or separation and who were in contact with the parent or guardian who did not live with them, one-quarter (25%) lived equally with both parents or guardians. Moreover, while nearly half (44%) saw the other parent regularly (i.e., every week or two), 21% saw the other parent occasionally.
In general, children aged 13 to 17 (38%) were less likely than those under the age of 5 (54%) and those aged 5 to 12 (46%) to visit the other parent every week or two. However, unlike in the rest of Canada, these differences were not seen in Quebec, where children regularly visited the other parent in the same proportion, regardless of age.
The frequency of physical contact influences parents' level of satisfaction with time spent with the child
In 2017, 74% of parents who did not have sole custody of their child were very satisfied or satisfied with the time they spent with the child. Mothers (80%) were more likely than fathers (70%) to be satisfied with the time spent with their child.
Approximately one in four parents (26%) was dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the time spent with their child. The most commonly cited reason for dissatisfaction was that the parent wanted the amount of time spent with the child to be different. This was the case for 63% of parents.
In addition, the level of satisfaction varied according to how frequently parents saw their child when they did not have custody. Parents who saw their child at least once a week (87%) were more likely than parents who saw their child less than once a week (58%) to be very satisfied or satisfied with the time spent with the child. This was true for both mothers (86% vs. 63%) and fathers (87% vs. 57%).
The level of satisfaction regarding time spent with the child does not vary based on frequency of contact by telephone, text message, email or video calls
In 2017, 38% of parents had been in contact with their child every day when the child was living with the other parent. As with physical contact, mothers were more likely than fathers to be in regular contact with their children. In fact, 52% of mothers were in contact with their children daily by telephone, text message, email or video call, compared with 27% of fathers.
However, this regular contact does not seem to influence the level of satisfaction regarding time spent with the child.
Data from the 2017 GSS reveal that half of parents with non-sole custody saw their child at least once a week when the child was with the ex-spouse or ex-partner and there was no difference between mothers and fathers. In addition, it is noted that the frequency of physical contact, unlike the frequency of communication, has an impact on parents' satisfaction with the time spent with the child. Parents were more likely to be satisfied with the time spent with their child when they saw the child regularly. Parents who saw their child regularly before the pandemic could therefore have experienced some imbalance in their family environment caused by the public health measures put in place at the start of the pandemic. Future surveys may provide a better understanding of the various changes that have taken place within families because of the pandemic.
Frequency of physical contact with the child in non-sole custody during the periods in which the child lived with the ex-spouse or ex-partner, in the past 12 months, by type of custody and the distance between the parents' residences
Proportion of parents who had regular physical contact with the child in non-sole custody, in the past 12 months, by region and sex of the parent
Types of contact with the parent who does not live with Canadian children, by age group and the child's province or territory of residence
Frequency of communication by phone, text message, email or video call, in the past 12 months, with a child in non-sole custody when the child was living with the ex-spouse or ex-partner, by sex of the parent
Note to readers
The GSS - Family is used to monitor trends and changes that take place in Canadian families. It collects information on conjugal and parental history (chronology of marriages, common law unions, divorces, separations and children), family origins, children leaving the parental home, parent-children contact, fertility intentions and other socioeconomic characteristics. The 2017 GSS target population includes non-institutionalized people aged 15 and older who live in 1 of the 10 Canadian provinces. It is a sample survey with a cross-sectional design. The data were collected directly from respondents using the computer-assisted telephone interview method.
The CHSCY explores issues that have an impact on the physical and mental health of children and youth, such as physical activity, the use of electronic devices, time spent in school and extracurricular activities. The 2019 survey covered the population aged 1 to 17 as of January 31, 2019, living in the 10 provinces and 3 territories. Children and youth living on reserve and in other Indigenous institutions in the provinces, and those living in foster homes or in institutions are excluded from the survey coverage. It is a voluntary cross-sectional sample survey. The data were collected directly from respondents using an electronic questionnaire or the computer-assisted telephone interview method.
Data from the CHSCY mentioned in this analysis are for children aged 17 and younger who have previously experienced the divorce or separation of their parents.
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