Australian Study Asks Children Their Ideas About Custody

In my last piece I discussed the frankly false and misleading article in an Australian newspaper “about” a study done by Dr. Alan Campbell of the University of South Australia. Unlike the article, the study itself is quite interesting. Sadly, I can’t provide a link, but the article can be found in Child Care in Practice, 7/1/08. It’s a very small study, and therefore shouldn’t be considered as representative, but its findings suggest avenues for future research and possibly for future changes in family court practices. Dr. Campbell and his colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 16 children, between the ages of seven and 17,
of divorced or separated Australian parents. The study isn’t clear about the parenting arrangements the children were in, but at most two of the sixteen and more likely only one had parents who had an equally-shared parenting arrangement. (That fact alone debunks the claim of Adelaide Now that the study found that shared parenting is “detrimental to children.” Put simply, it doesn’t deal with shared parenting at all.) They wanted to find out three basic things:

1. How are children”s views of themselves in relation to adults reflected in their comments about their ability to participate in decisions that directly affect them following their parents” separation? 2. To what extent do children”s interview texts reflect an understanding about rights and children? 3. How do children construct an understanding of the concept of their ‘‘best interests”” in relation to post-separation decision-making about their futures?

Campbell refers to previous studies that found that, for the most part, courts have tended to ignore children’s ideas, thoughts and concepts about divorce, separation and custody. That stems from a traditional attitude on the part of adults that they know better than children what is in the “best interests of the child.”

What Campbell learned from the children interviewed is something else entirely. First, without exception, the children wanted to talk about this. Interviewers were prepared to provide various activities for the children to engage in as part of the interview process, but the children declined the invitation, preferring to talk about the topic – divorce, separation and child custody. In short, the kids were serious about this.

Contrary to popular belief, the children in his study had rather clear ideas about what was going on in their parent’s separation, and some definite desires about the process and outcomes. For example, essentially all the children wanted to have some input into the decisions that were being made about their lives. That’s not to say they wanted the final say-so; they didn’t. But, in the parlance of the day, they wanted their voices to be heard.

Indeed, in exploring the children’s thoughts about ‘rights’, it turned out that a lot of that very concept involved being listened to. The kids wanted to be consulted and considered that to be their ‘right.’

When the topic turned to the “best interests of the child,” they once again asserted that being consulted about custody, living arrangements, etc., should be part of the concept. In other words, courts, in striving to act in the “best interests of the child” tend to ignore one of the main things that children think is in their best interests – having a voice in the matter. The children wanted to change that.

But what’s in the child’s best interests – at least according to the children interviewed – is broader than simply being listened to. They placed a high value on fairness to their parents and to themselves. In fact, they described the practice of “awarding” primary custody to one parent as unfair to both the non-custodial parent and the child.

Interviewer: What do you think about the idea of someone like a judge deciding where children should live? Olivia: Oh, well, I don”t think that would be very fair, because the child . . . if they just have to live with their dad, or they just have to live with their mum, it wouldn”t be very fair on both of them . . . . I don”t think it would be very fair on the mum or the dad, because they choose when they see, when the kids see them. (Olivia, nine years old)


Interviewer: What do you think about the idea of someone like a judge deciding where children should live? Ellen: Not very nice. Cos if they want to live with their dad and they were living with their mum and they had to stay with their mum and they didn”t want to, it wouldn”t be very fair. (Ellen, nine years old)

So what we learn from this is that the children wanted the process to result in fairness and that the practice of primary custody/visitation doesn’t meet that standard. To them, it’s not fair. Interestingly enough, in another article, Dr. Campbell suggests that this desire for fairness in custody decisions should be considered a necessary part of the concept of the “best interests of the child.” That is, only a fair custody arrangement could satisfy the law’s requirement that the courts act in the child’s best interests.

Last, the children tended to view outside experts appointed by courts, such as social workers, psychologists, etc., as interfering in the process rather than serving it. To them, family members, including those of the extended family, should make decisions about custody. This came, as Campbell writes, from “their understanding of the family as a ‘complete’ unit, a source of support and nurturance, and their loyalty to this ideal.” Any input from outside that unit was suspect to the children and presumptively less legitimate than the advice and counsel of family members.

I don’t argue – and neither did the children – that all of this is to be taken at face value. Indeed, many of the children – 13-year-old Nick in particular – displayed fairly nuanced views and understandings of what they were talking about. They didn’t paint with a broad brush, but rather saw that each situation is different and demands its own careful consideration. Their emphasis on the family as the primary decision-maker, for example, could prove unworkable in dysfunctional or highly-conflicted families.

Still, Campbell’s study, limited though it may be, provides rich food for thought. If it teaches us only one thing, it is that children have valuable insights into their families, their parents and their desires about custody and living arrangements post-divorce or separation. We should ask them for their thoughts, and listen to what they say.

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