Elizabeth J. Kates, Esq.
National Network on Family Law Policy

Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D.
415-789-9530 fax

Misrepresentation of Findings in Psychology Study by APA
Release by APA June 25, 2003 on Post-Divorce Relocation of Children research by Sanford L. Braver, Ira M. Ellman and William V. Fabricius misrepresents the findings, says Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D.

CALIFORNIA -- Sanford L. Braver and colleagues Ira M. Ellman and William V. Fabricius have released a new study (June 25, 2003) purporting to examine the effects on children whose parents move after divorce. Braver's write-up of his findings are prefaced with lengthy and inaccurate legal argument and misleading political commentary. The study write-up and press releases appear to have been timed to move public opinion in anticipation of the California Supreme Court's decision in the LaMusga case, now pending, which father's groups currently are heralding as a "revisitation of Burgess."

The American Psychological Association press release, issued June 25, 2003 on the study reports:

Children of divorced parents who are separated from one parent due to the custodial or non-custodial parent moving beyond an hour's drive from the other parent are significantly less well off on many child mental and physical health measures compared to those children whose parents don't relocate after divorce, according to new research. The findings, say the study authors, cast doubt on the current legal presumption that a move by a custodial parent to a destination that the moving parent believes will improve his or her life will also be in the best interest of the children that moves with them.

The study appears in the June issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Family Psychology, a special issue on linkages between family psychology and the law, and is the first study to provide direct evidence of the effect of relocation on children after divorce.

In fact that is not close to the truth. It is a blatant misrepresentation by the study's authors and the American Psychological Association's press release regarding the study's actual findings, which were as follows:

WHO WAS STUDIED Braver et al. compared the characteristics of 602 Arizona undergrad psychology students from divorced families, divided up into groups in which post-divorce: (1) neither parent moved, (2) mother moved away with kids, (3) mother moved, leaving kids with father, (4) father moved with kids, and (5) father moved, leaving kids with mother.

HOW THEY WERE STUDIED The students filled out questionnaires.


PERSONAL AND EMOTIONAL WELL-ADJUSTMENT: The most well-adjusted group in this category were children who remained with their mothers whose fathers moved away. They were better adjusted than children from divorced families where neither parent moved, albeit marginally so. Children who moved with their fathers, or who remained behind with their fathers scored significantly lower on personal and emotional well adjustment than children who remained in the custody of their mothers, regardless of whether the mother moved or not.

GENERAL LIFE SATISFACTION: Children in the custody of their fathers scored lowest on general life satisfaction. Children of divorce whose fathers moved away and left them with their mothers were the most satisfied, marginally more satisfied than children from divorced families in which neither parent moved, and significantly more satisfied than children who either moved or remained behind with their fathers.

HOSTILITY: Children who moved with their fathers, or who remained behind in the custody of their fathers had significantly more hostility than children in families in which neither divorced parent moved, or who either moved with their mothers or remained behind with their mothers. Children who moved with their mothers showed less hostility than children who remained behind with their mothers (i.e. whose fathers moved away), but children who remained behind with their mothers whose fathers moved away, while a little more hostile, also were a little more well-adjusted and satisfied overall.

INNER TURMOIL AND DISTRESS FROM THE DIVORCE: Children from the group in which neither parent moved had the least inner turmoil and distress from the divorce itself. However, the group of children who moved with their mothers or stayed with their mothers when their father moved still had less inner turmoil and distress than children who either moved with their fathers or stayed behind with their fathers when their mothers moved. (It is unclear whether this factor was related to moving per se, or more difficult divorce circumstances, which in turn precipitated a move. Either way, it is uncorrelated with the children's overall well-adjustedness and life satisfaction.)

PERCEPTION OF PARENT AS "SUPPORTIVE": Children across all categories tended to perceive the parent they lived with as more supportive. However, in general over all categories, children had a higher opinion of their mothers.

"GLOBAL HEALTH": Children who moved away with their fathers reported significantly lower "global health" than children whose parents did not move, and also lower health than the remaining three groups, which otherwise had no significant differences among them, but did report somewhat lower health than the group whose parents did not move.

CONTRIBUTIONS OF PARENTS TO COLLEGE: Among the moving categories, children who remained behind with their fathers received significantly less college assistance than did children who remained behind with their mothers (the second most supportive category), and children who moved with their fathers (the least supportive category) received significantly less college assistance than did children who moved with their mothers. Children whose parents did not move received significantly more financial assistance for college than children whose parents moved with or without them. (While actually relatively unimportant compared with things like a child's well-adjustedness overall, and probably most easily remedied by policies that would target this issue with particularity -- like more and better government funding for education for all children -- this is the finding Braver et al. and the anti-moveaway crowd are touting the most, and it's essentially echoed in the odd category immediately below.)

FINANCIAL WORRIES OVER COLLEGE EXPENSES: This category mirrored the actual contributions of parents to children's college expenses, as we might have guessed.

A few other areas of well-adjustedness were measured, with no important differences in and among the different groups of undergraduate college students taking an introductory psychology class (e.g. more substance abuse among children who live with their fathers.)

Comments and analysis by Judith Wallerstein:

"These findings fail to support the argument that the move away affects the psychological adjustment or social behavior of the youngsters. The youngsters in the custody of their fathers when the mother moved or who moved with the father were the only young people who showed troubled behavior."

The study presented by Braver, Elman and Fabricious as the centerpiece of their argument that courts should bar the mother who has custody from moving with her children is based entirely on brief written responses to a questionnaire administered only once in the early weeks of their freshman year to youngsters enrolled in introductory psychology classes at Arizona State University in 1991.

There are no other data about these students or their families collected by these investigators other than the students responses to the questionnaire. The study analyzes their brief responses and draws a range of conclusions. Their analysis rests on this very limited body of information with no information about the economic or social circumstances of growing up in the families, no knowledge of the histories of these young people or of their parents, and no references to the developmental issues that youngsters entering college and separating from living with their families face at this time in their lives.

Despite their extraordinary lack of data about the lives of these young people and their families or even about the number of moves and the distance of the move the authors of this study make the astonishing and unwarranted assumption that moving as little as an hour's drive away from the other parent was a critical issue in their mental health and attitudes.

The 602 students who noted in their response that their parents had divorced were divided into 5 groups and compared in their responses to questions about their mental health and about the contributions of their fathers and mothers to their expenses during their first year at college.

The breakdown, in accord with the interest of the investigators, was that 38% or 232 had parents who did not move more than an hours drive away since the divorce, 25% or !48 moved with mother, 26% or 154 remained with the mother when the father moved. Only 8% or 46 remained with the father when the mother moved. And only or 4% or 22 moved away with the father.

Moving was defined as on hour's drive away or more. The distances moved or the number of moves was not sought, distinguished or reported. But the number of mothers and fathers who moved away was about almost exactly the same. The investigators do not mention whether any of these cases came to court or whether any of the moves were protested by the other parent.

It is important therefore to note that it is not possible to compare those children whose custodial mother decided not to relocate (because of a court order preventing her from leaving with her children) with children who were permitted to move in accord with the mother's request and over the father's objections. On this issue, as noted in our amica brief re Burgess, there remains no research anywhere directly on point, and it is necessary therefore to draw on the existing large body of developmental and clinical knowledge about children and the impact of divorce on the development of children.

Nevertheless it may be instructive to compare the findings of this very limited study of young people who remained with their custodial mothers with those that moved with the father or remained in his custody after the mother's move. On this issue the study has some striking findings.

We note that in the measures of psychological and emotional adjustment there are no significant differences between those children who remained in the same community with both parents not moving amd those who remained in the custody of the mother whether she moved or remained in the same community as before the divorce whether or not the father moved. The major psychological indices which show no significant differences in the youngsters in these groups include: their overall personal and emotional adjustment, substance abuse, patterns of friendship, dating behavior and general life satisfaction .

These findings fail to support the argument that the move away affects the psychological adjustment or social behavior of the youngsters.

There are however astonishing differences in the emotional adjustment of those youngsters in the custody of their fathers whom either moved or remained in the same community.

The youngsters in the custody of their fathers when the mother moved or who moved with the father were the only young people who showed troubled behavior. But they report that the youngsters who were, in their words. "noticeably less well adjusted were youngsters who moved with or remained with the father."

The authors make no effort to explain this truly astounding finding, and it is hard to see how these findings constitute an argument for barring the custodial mother's move with her children and changing the custody of the child from mother to father.

Another argument, which the study makes against permitting mothers to move with their children, is that fathers contribute more to the college expenses of their children when both parents remain in the same community. And indeed it appears to be so if we compare the dollar amount contributed. What we do not know is how reliable the cash figures are as estimated by these young people. Did they see the checks or did they report what one or both parents told them or were they guessing? Nor do we know which youngsters were paying the low in-state fees or the much higher out-of-state fees.

Most researchers would seek some corroborative hard evidence from college records or at the very least additional information from interviews with parents before relying on the financial reports of college freshmen who have little experience in financial matters and little hard data. The only information in this study is from the students.

What we also do not know except from the students is whether the more affluent parents who contributed more money to college were also the ones who were able to remain in the same general neighborhood as the family home after the breakup. And whether their fathers contained a subgroup that was well educated and more likely therefore to value college education.

It is well established that many parents are impoverished by the divorce especially middleclass women (Jay Teachman and Kathleen Paasch Spring 1994 Financial Impact of Divorce on Children and their Families The Future of Children, Children and Divorce, Vol. 4 no1. pp. 63 to 83). Hetherington, who reported a multimeasure long term study in which she talked with parents and children over more than two decades, notes that the poor women in her study moved 7 times in the 6 year period after the breakup in search of cheaper affordable rent. Obviously these poor custodial mothers would not have been able to remain in the same neighbornhood as the pre-divorce family home. So it may be that the economic condition of the fathers was different in these different categories of contribution to college and that those who gave more money included a larger group of more affluent business and professional men for whom moving away after the breakup was more problematic because of the constraints of licensure in different states and the obstacles to reestablishing professional practices and moving businesses.

We cannot answer any of these questions from the limited information available in this study. Nevertheless, according to the youngsters reports, fathers who along with mother did not move contributed approximately $6000 to the first year of college. They contributed approximately $5000 to the college expenses of youngsters where the mother remained in the same community. And close to that for children who remained in their custody. They contributed somewhat over $4000 to children who moved with their custodial mother. But once again we confront an unexpected difference in father and mother custody. Fathers contributed their lowest, only $3700 to children who moved with them. Why did the children in their custody get so much less ? This finding, which is germane to the issue of comparing children in father and mother custody receives no comment from the investigators.

There are other issues in understanding these amounts within their proper context, which are not discussed because we lack information. We are not told whether the children who moved were helped by grandparents or extended family, which they may well have been if the mother relocated to be with her family. We also are not told whether any of the young people had worked to accumulate their own college money during or after high school, or whether any enjoyed their own family trust or had received scholarships. It is unlikely that the young people knew the amounts contributed by stepparents which may have been an important part of tuition for those mothers who moved in order to remarry. We are left with many more questions than answers.

The authors note, buried in the text of their article that "Our data cannot establish with certainty that moves cause children significant harm."

Actually their data cannot establish even tentatively that moves cause children any harm. The data as reported show very little about the impact of the relocation on children in mother custody families as compared with those that do not move. It would, in fact, be impossible for these data to show improvement or detriment since their study is entirely lacking in a baseline. We do not know how the child was before the move, or the reasons for the move, or the age and condition of parent and child before the move. The study tells us nothing about the impact of the move without this baseline against which the child could be compared.

The authors concede that all of "the data are correlative and not causative. They cannot establish with anything near certainty that the moves are a contributing cause." Exactly. It is important to emphasize that correlations never establish causality and that the entire method of this study is based on correlations.

Moreover it is just as likely that relocation is a consequence of a stressful and unhappy environment as a cause of it. The authors do not consider this obvious possibility. They do note that general data or averages cannot decide individual cases and they call appropriately for longitudinal studies, which this is not.

In their final conclusions the authors offer the unfounded generalization that the study establishes that relocation does not improve the condition of children. It is impossible to find any support for this statement in this study.

There were no significant differences among those groups of children who remained in the same community with both parents and those who moved with their custodial mother. The researchers' conclusion that relocation fails to improve the lives of children seems to be built not on the study itself but on the goals of the investigators.

The only group of children found to suffer were those who were in the custody of their fathers (whether or not the children moved). These children seemed significantly more troubled in all of the major mental health measures.

To conclude: The proper comparison group, which would be relevant to the relocation of the custodial parent with the child, is not simply cases where both parents continue to live in the same area. Rather the salient group would be built of cases where the custodial parent was prevented from moving. Such a study has not been conducted.

The important findings in this limited study are:

(1) the striking similarities in major mental health measures between children who moved with their mothers and those whose parents did not move (which supports granting custodial mothers' requests to move with their children), and

(2) the unexplained psychological plight of the children in father custody (which contraindicates denying custodial mothers' requests to move with their children and requiring the children instead to remain with their fathers).

The similarities in mental health measures between those who remained in mother custody regardless of geographical location are overriding in their importance.

-- Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D.


For more information about this study, see:

The full text of Braver et al.'s article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at

The National Network on Family Law Policy is an informal coalition of professionals, organizations and activist groups in the fields of law, psychology, and academia who advocate for appropriate reforms in family law legislation. lamusga