Last week the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) published a report presenting the findings of the ‘Millennium Cohort Study’ (a study of around 19,000 children who were born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002). It explores child outcomes after parental separation. The study was commissioned by the MoJ “to contribute to an emerging body of research aiming to shed light on how parental separation might affect children’s wellbeing.” The aim of the report, we are told, “is to improve the evidence base on the extent to which parental separation is associated with children’s outcomes, focusing on whether contact between a child and a non-resident parent post separation is associated with child well-being.” Just how much light do the study’s findings shed upon the subject?
I will deal with the study’s key findings in turn:
- The frequency and quality of contact between the child and the non-resident parent declined with time since separation. This is surely entirely as one would expect. The classic case is where the father is hindered in having contact with his children, and gradually ‘gives up’, possibly thinking that it might be better for the children if they are spared any further conflict within the family. Other possible reasons are the children losing interest in contact as they take on other interests of their own, and the non-resident parent spending more time with a new family.
- The frequency and quality of contact between the child and the non-resident parent was higher for children whose parents were previously married. Again this is as expected – many of the unmarried parents will not have had a ‘proper’ relationship at all, never living together and never committing to one another. That obviously makes it less likely that they will cooperate with child contact, and more likely that the father will take little or no interest in the children.
- The frequency and quality of contact between the child and the non-resident parent was higher in families with higher socio-economic status. Sad, but surely true. Also, dare one say, probably linked to the greater likelihood that the parents will have married, or at least committed to one another if they are better off? Further, economic hardship can make it more difficult for the non-resident parent to keep up with contact, especially where it involves expensive travel, and where they can’t afford suitable accommodation for their children to have staying contact with them.
- The frequency and quality of contact between the child and the non-resident parent was higher among families who did not report court involvement (for contact or financial arrangements) during the separation process. To this I feel like responding with the somewhat rude: “Duh!” It is completely obvious that where the parents are in conflict with one another such that court proceedings are involved, there is more likely to be difficulties with contact. I’m sorry, but I really don’t think we needed a study to tell us this.
- Court involvement for financial arrangements appeared to be used more by more affluent families than less affluent families, while the reverse was true for court involvement for contact arrangements. The first part of this is another example of what Basil Fawlty would call the “bleeding obvious” – the more money and assets there are, the more there is to argue over. The second part, that less affluent families are more likely to go to court to sort out contact arrangements, also comes as no surprise – see point 3 above.
- Children of continuously married parents tended to have the best outcomes at age 11, followed by children of parents who were cohabiting at the time of birth and remained together. Children of separated parents showed the worst outcomes. This will no doubt be leapt upon by the pro-marriage brigade, but if marriage is more likely amongst the better off, as mentioned above, then it is entirely expected. It is certainly expected that children whose parents separate should show the worst outcomes.
- Lastly, among children of separated parents, the results suggest that more contact with the non-resident parent was associated with better outcomes for children at age 11. Yes, and this is precisely why the courts take the view that contact should always take place, unless there is a very good reason why it should not.
All in all, I can’t honestly say that these findings shed any new light upon the subject whatsoever. We already knew all of this, and we certainly knew that contact between a child and a non-resident parent post separation is usually good for the child.
OK, if all of the above sounds rather negative, there are a couple of things I should say. Firstly, I realise that it was not the intention of the study to come up with anything new, and that there is some value in having our knowledge confirmed. Secondly, I don’t intend to criticise the study or those who carried it out – they say themselves that the findings support existing evidence – but merely to give my views upon those findings.
The report can be found here.