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[Sanford Braver and his associates set out to prove that letting custodial mothers move with their children causes children harm. The researchers came up with no findings in support of their goal. What they did find is discussed here by esteemed researcher and divorce psychology expert, Dr. Judith Wallerstein. You can read additional comments by Prof. Norval D. Glenn, Ph.D.and David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values at]

Judith Wallerstein:

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 certainly 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.

These 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.

To note a few: was the amount of the father's contribution related to the father's income. Was it related to the mother's income? Did the contribution reflect a sacrifice by the father? Was it something they had planned for? Or was it an easy gift. Did the amount reflect the parent child relationship? Was less money provided if mother had remarried? Or if father remarried? Did the money reflect the friendship or animosity of the parents or the perhaps the attitude of the child or perhaps the academic promise and talents of the child? Was the gender of the child an issue or the number of children in the family? For all of these interesting and important questions we lack data.

But in the absence of information it seems highly questionable to conclude that if the mother and father refrain from moving that the child is likely to get $1000 more in college tuition during her freshman year at college. It also should be noted that even the $6000 dollar contributed by fathers for the freshman year, which was the top amount estimated by the youngsters whose parents had not moved, does not go much beyond one half or less of the college expenses at a state university, especially if clothing and transportation and entertainment are factored in.

The study also includes a welter of responses to questions put to the youngsters about how stressed they feel, about their anger their attitudes to their parents, and the extent to which they see their parents as getting along. In the absence of any history or personal information about the youngsters, the parent child relationships or about their families there is no way to evaluate their responses responsibly. We lack the most elementary information about how many youngsters experienced a second or third parental divorce. We do not know whether the youngsters who relocated with their mother had come a long distance from their home to the college or whether this was their first separation from their families, or whether they had some concerns about the effect of their leaving on the mother or siblings in a distant community. We are not told about whether they or their parents were in medical or psychiatric treatment during the child's growing up years. We are not informed about how old the children were at the breakup, the reasons for the move, or the extent or number of moves.

From a developmental standpoint it is important to note that the authors seem entirely unaware of the impact of developmental issues on the youngsters and their attitudes. The responses of the young people about how they feel about their parents or about themselves as they stand on the threshold of college, at a major life transition, need to be understood within a developmental context. Undoubtedly entering college and separating from living with family is a moderately stressful time. It is difficult for some young people to separate from their parents and familiar surroundings at this time. Entry into dorm life can be a shock. But these stresses are not ones likely to lead to lasting health problems. The public health studies that link stress to serious sequellae that the authors invoke deal with lasting severe stress not the mild to moderate stress of leaving home and moving from one developmental phase to another which these young people are engaged in doing.

The mental health responses already reported suggest that these students are mostly in good shape with the exception of those in the custody of their fathers. Those young people who thought of their parents as good or poor role models may at age 18 or 19 have accurately gauged their parent's behavior or may still be in the throes of adolescent rebellion against them. These kind of subtle judgments require the context of the relationship. One needs to know the circumstances and the details of the relationship in order to pass judgment. Furthermore it is likely that parents who get along are able more easily to stay in the same neighborhood where they resided prior to the divorce. Perhaps there was less remarriage among the parents who did not move, or less internal motivation or external pressure to remake their lives or perhaps some lingering affection between the divorced couple.

It is really too bad that the investigators did not interview even a small subgroup among the young people or their parents to shed light on these issues and to clarify and truly enrich their findings before trying to link the youngster's attitudes to whether or not they moved an hour away.or more.

To detail their reports which they failed to anchor within the context of the lives of the students or their families, the investigators report no significant differences in anger between those youngsters who remained with both parents and those who moved with their mother and those who remained with the mother, whether or not the father moved. They find a larger difference in distress from the divorce reported among those who moved with their mother than those who remained in the same community. But here again we lack information about the economic circumstances of the family, the mother child and the stepparent relationships, and other information that might cast light on their greater distress.

We are told that there is no difference in the responses in the different groups in the view of mother as providing good support. Those youngsters who moved and those who stayed did have significantly different view of the father as source of support. Whether those who moved were realistically disappointed in their father who did not, in their view, make the expected efforts to maintain their contact or whether they felt displaced by the stepchildren or whether they were influenced by their mother's feelings towards the father we cannot know without knowledge of the history and the circumstances that prompted their responses.

Finally the authors note, "Our data cannot establish with certainty that moves cause children significant harm."

Actually their date 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.

As we have noted, since the study has no information about the children prior to the move, the researchers have no basis whatsoever for evaluating whether the children did or did not improve. And since they have not enough information in their findings to examine different groups in the study, they cannot shed light on who benefited and who did not. In addition, since there were no differences among those groups of children who remained in the same community with both parents and those who moved with the 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. (2003)

also see: Summary of the Findings, by liz


Those Joint Custody Studies: Debunked, liz

Joint Custody -- the Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions, liz

Myths and Facts about Fatherhood: What the Research REALLY Says

Myths and Facts about Motherhood: What the Research REALLY Says

And... Why is this Advocate of Calling it "Adult-Child Sex" So Interested in Touting Joint Custody? liz debunks Bauserman's "Meta-analysis."

Comments by Trish Wilson on this new study and Bauserman

What the Experts Say: A Review of the Scholarly Research on Post-Divorce Parenting and Child Well-being.

Misplaced Blame and Simplistic Solutions: DC's Joint Custody Presumption, by Margaret Martin Barry -- Scholarly article by law professor discusses what's wrong with a statute providing for a presumption of joint custody

When Paradigms Collide: Protecting Battered Parents and Their Children in the Family Court System, by Clare Dalton, 37 Fam. & Conciliation Courts Rev. 273 (1999)

Margaret Dore, Esq. on "friendly parent" provisions

Attachment 101 for Attorneys: Implications for Infant Placement Decisions, by Eleanor Willemsen and Kristen Marcel

Joint Custody: Implications for Women, by Renee Leff
originally published on the internet at

Understanding the Batterer in Visitation and Custody Disputes, by R. Lundy Bancroft.  Why abuse may be reported for the first time at the time of a separation or divorce; critique of Janet Johnston's categories of batterer; more.

Spousal Violence in Custody and Access Disputes, Recommendations for Reform, Nicholas M.C. Bala et al. -- Scholarly article by Status of Women Canada Policy Research Fund (1998)

The Psychological Effects of Relocation for Children of Divorce, by Marion Gindes, Ph.D., AAML Journal, Vol. 15 (1998), pp. 119

What the Father's Rights movement really looks like, liz

What the "Responsible Fatherhood" movement really is about, liz ... and

Carol S. Bruch, Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: GETTING IT WRONG IN CHILD CUSTODY CASES

Bibliography of other articles (to be supplemented):

Brinig, Margaret F., "Feminism and Child Custody Under Chapter Two of the American Law Institute's Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution." 8 Duke J. of Gender L. & Pol'y 301 (Spring/Summer 2001).

Hardesty, Jennifer L.,"Separation Assault in the Context of Postdivorce Parenting: An Integrative Review of the Literature." Violence Against Women 8.5 (May 2002): 597-625. Author discusses the negative implications of friendly parent provisions for abused women.

Kuehl, Sheila J., Against Joint Custody: A General Dissent to the General Bullmoose Theory. Family and Conciliation Courts Review (1989), 27 (2) 37-45

Neely, Richard, The Primary Caretaker Parent Rule: Child Custody and the Dynamics of Greed, 3 Yale L. & Pol'y Rev. 168 (1984)

Singer, Jana B. & William L. Reynolds, A Dissent on Joint Custody, 47 Md. L. Rev. 497 (1988). The primary caretaker preference eliminates much of the bickering and confusion inherent in custody determinations by awarding custody to the parent who has been most responsible for raising the child.

Waits, Kathleen, "Battered Women and Their Children: Lessons from One Woman's Story," Symposium: Domestic Violence and the Health Care System. 35 Hous. L. Rev. 29 (1998).


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