research - government - funded divorce research
Concern about divorce and separation is partly fuelled by
the rise in the divorce rate and the numbers of children affected
by family changes. There is also growing concern about the
role of fathers and the need for children to maintain a good
relationship with both their parents. Recent years have seen
the development of a growing range of services designed to
help children and families experiencing these changes.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has supported a collection
of research projects on children’s and parents’
experiences of separation and divorce. These studies have
examined the outcomes for children of changes in their family
circumstances, and what can help them at these times of stress.
The research reports have also looked at the experience of
separation for those who have been cohabiting as well as those
who divorce, and at the impact of separation and divorce on
fathers, as well as on mothers and children. Mavis Maclean,
of the University of Oxford, summarises this research here.
• Researchers suggest the need to see parental separation
not as an event but as a process which begins long before
a parent departs and continues throughout childhood. They
stress the importance both of making sure that children are
told clearly what is happening and of listening sensitively
to what children have to say about decisions which affect
• Separation for children can be particularly difficult
when followed by a number of other changes to the family setting,
for example where parents find new partners or where new children
are brought into the household.
• Financial hardship and parental distress are also
associated with continuing problems for children.
• Formal interventions need to be child-centred and
available to all on the basis of need rather than civil status.
However, many children seek better communication with and
informal support from friends and family.
• We need to move on from seeing the children of divorced
and separated parents as having an experience which is essentially
different from that of other children. All children experience
a number of transitions that can be difficult for them, and
for which they may require additional support.
• A poor relationship between the separated parents
is understood to add to the difficulties in establishing successful
arrangements for contact between the child and the non-resident
parent. However, there are also many practical issues that
concern families on separation. Considerations such as housing
and working hours can also be barriers to developing and maintaining
In Supporting families, the first Green Paper on the family
published by the Home Office in 1998, the Government set out
as its mission statement: "The interests of children
must come first". At a time of increased incidence of
separation and divorce, it is important for parents to be
able to care for their children even when they do not share
a common household, to be able to adjust to periods of lone
parenting, and to cope with new family structures when mothers
and fathers form new partnerships and other children are brought
into the household as either step- or half-siblings.
The policy goals set out in Supporting families aim to support
parents undergoing family change in a number of ways. These
include involving wider kin networks, improving advice and
information services including financial advice, seeking a
better balance between the demands of home and work, and supporting
adult relationships. Marriage is seen as the preferred setting
for bringing up children but, in the interests of the children,
parenting in other settings is to be valued and supported.
The policy landscape is changing rapidly. In September 2003
the Government published a Green Paper, Every child matters,
following the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié.
In his foreword, the Prime Minister emphasises that "for
most parents, our children are everything to us". The
paper proposes strengthening both universal services, such
as schools and health and social services, together with targeted
specialist services for children needing additional support.
Planned legislation will create Directors of Children’s
Services, accountable for educational and children’s
services as part of ‘children’s trusts’.
A Minister for Children, Young People and Families has been
appointed, and there are proposals for a new Children’s
Commissioner. This legislation and ministerial change only
affects England; Wales already has its own Minister responsible
for children and young people and a Children’s Commissioner.
The new Minister in England is consulting on the extent to
which the Green Paper will apply to frameworks already in
The divorce rate rose rapidly between the mid-1960s and mid-1990s
reaching 161,000 in 1997 and subsequently levelling out below
150,000 a year. Two-thirds of those divorcing, and an unknown
but substantial number of those who separate after living
together, have children under 16. It is more difficult to
be precise about the numbers of separating cohabitants as
the end of their relationship is not recorded in any public
Important policy questions have been challenging Government,
voluntary organisations and those working with families. These
• Are children negatively affected by separation or
divorce; if so, which groups of children?
• It is generally agreed that it is important for children
to maintain their relationship with both parents. But, how
important is it that a non-resident parent has contact with
their children when this is not welcomed by the parent with
care nor by the children, or where there are questions about
inadequate parenting or domestic violence?
• How should we support parents both before and after
they split up in their parenting roles and in dealing with
the problems of parenting after divorce?
• How can such help be best delivered to parents and
Divorce or separation is only one of a number of changes to
their family life which children undergo. New partners for
either parent may have children already. There may be children
from a new relationship, and there may be subsequent separations
and other new partners. It is clear that multiple transitions,
however well-handled, are difficult for a child to cope with.
Interventions by Government or professionals can no longer
focus on a single event, but need to support children throughout
the many changes which take place in the course of family
Attempts to encourage widespread use of mediation in divorce
though the Family Law Act of 1996 failed. Subsequent government
responses have been to pilot the idea of a ‘one-stop
shop’ for advice. The Family Advice and Information
Network (FAIN) will initially be based in solicitors’
offices. In addition, the Government has tried to strengthen
the Children and Families Courts Advice and Support Services
(CAFCASS), to make it a broad-ranging advice service not focusing
solely on divorce or other disputes. However, this has not
yet been considered to be successful. Moving CAFCASS from
the former Lord Chancellor’s Department to the Department
for Education and Skills may be helpful
The findings from JRF research in this area throw light on
these policy areas, and in particular on what needs to be
considered in helping parents and children at times of family
• At least one in three children will experience parental
separation before the age of 16. Most of these children go
through a period of unhappiness; many experience low self-esteem,
behaviour problems, and loss of contact with part of the extended
family. Children are usually helped by good communication
with both parents, and most settle back into a normal pattern
of development (Rodgers and Pryor, 1998; Dunn and Deater-Deckard,
2001). However, a small minority experience continued problems;
sometimes these problems - including poorer employment prospects
and family disruption - continue into adulthood. The factors
thought to be associated with increased risk of poor outcomes
following divorce and separation include financial hardship,
high levels of parental distress, and experiencing more than
one set of changes in family circumstances. For example, separation
may be followed by a new relationship for either parent, which
may in turn be followed by new step-siblings and by the birth
of half-siblings to the child’s parent and his or her
new partner. These new partnerships may also end in separation;
subsequently either parent may embark on a further new relationship
involving step- or half-siblings.
• The quality of relationships between parents and children
and between parents themselves is important in helping children
adjust to life after separation (Hawthorne et al., 2003).
Children also need to be informed of and involved in decisions
about what happens in the family (Dunn and Deater-Deckard,
• Becoming part of a step-family seems to be helpful
for younger children but to be harder for older children to
adapt to (Hawthorne et al., 2003). Older children seem to
appreciate step-parents more when they act in a supportive
and friendly way rather than being involved in discipline
• Wider kin networks, especially grandparents, can play
an important part in supporting children and grandchildren
around the time of separation (Perry et al., 2000; Dunn and
Deater-Deckard, 2001). They are an additional resource when
one parent is absent and the other is upset, and can communicate
with their grandchildren while supporting their own child.
• Many of the researchers found that children had a
range of different ways of coping and of needs for support
and communication, which may be met in different ways (Hawthorne
et al., 2003; James and Sturgeon-Adams, 1999; Trinder et al.,
2002; Wade and Smart, 2002; Wilson and Edwards, 2003).
• Some children and parents need informal or professional
help (Rodgers and Pryor, 1998; Dunn and Deater-Deckard, 2001;
Hawthorne et al., 2003). In providing that help to children,
we need to focus on the child’s view of the world rather
than being preoccupied by the breakdown in the parents’
relationships as partners. We need also to be aware that -
as well as parents - grandparents and friends are key figures
for children (Dunn and Deater-Deckard, 2001).
• Services for children need careful evaluation to determine
their effectiveness in supporting both children and their
families and in promoting children’s short-, medium-
or longer-term wellbeing (Hawthorne et al., 2003; Wilson and
Edwards, 2003; James and Sturgeon-Adams, 1999). Most studies
to date have focused on children’s and parents’
satisfaction with services. There is a difference between
a popular service, appreciated by the client, and an effective
service, which leads to a measurable improvement in outcomes.
• Some studies have demonstrated that working directly
with parents can be effective. Some children valued school-based
services, which have the advantage of being available to all
school-age children. Others, however, did not want to discuss
their family situation in school, preferring to keep a clear
distance between their home and school lives (Wilson and Edwards,
2003; Hawthorne et al., 2003).
• Leaflets are often of high quality, but children may
not use them. Newer communication techniques, such as websites
and CD-ROMs, are being developed but, again, these are not
widely used by children (Hawthorne et al., 2003).
• At the time of separating, parents worry about practical
matters such as housing and housekeeping rather than about
more technical legal issues. They need practical as well as
technical legal advice (Perry et al., 2000).
• Fathers face difficulties in organising contact when
they have long or irregular working hours and accommodation
which is not suitable for extended visits. Providing sufficient
space to allow both parents to offer reasonable comfort on
overnight stays for the children requires considerable resources
(Lewis et al., 2002; Wade and Smart, 2002).
• Both parents may misunderstand the law on dividing
assets and on paternal responsibility when a cohabiting relationship
ends (Wade and Smart, 2002; Perry et al., 2000; Pickford,
• Parenting problems after separation are often related
to the reasons for ending the relationship, particularly in
cases of domestic violence, rather than to whether the separation
followed marriage or living together (Wade and Smart, 2002).
• Working together as parents is hard where there is
conflict in a relationship and even harder after separation
or divorce. Arranging contact between the children and the
non-resident parent requires a sustained effort by both parents.
Non-resident parents must accept that their role has changed
from when they shared a home with the child’s; parents
with care must accept that they need to actively facilitate
contact arrangements, even if their own relationship with
their former partner is not amicable (Trinder et al., 2002).
Contact can be so conflicted that we may need to accept it
may sometimes be necessary for the parents to go their separate
ways at least for the time being (Trinder et al., 2002).
• There is public support for the move to conferring
parental responsibility on fathers who are not married to
the mother of their child but who register the birth of their
child together (Pickford, 1999).
• Mothers can express strong feelings about the perceived
immaturity of men as a cause of separation and about what
they see as their own special role (Lewis et al., 2002). However,
men’s views on this can differ from those of mothers.
(Wade and Smart, 2002; Lewis et al., 2002).
• Even where men have been closely involved with the
child before separation they tend to become distant afterwards
(Lewis et al., 2002; Buchanan et al., forthcoming).
• Fatherhood involves elements of accessibility, availability
and responsibility. There is a pressing need to understand
the difference between an adult-centred view of fathering
and a child-centred view.
Key observations made by the researchers throughout the programme
suggest the following:
• There is a need to see parental separation not as
an event but as a process, beginning long before the actual
departure of one parent and continuing throughout childhood.
This experience is difficult for all, but particularly so
for those families where other difficulties already exist.
These might include financial difficulties or acute or prolonged
parental conflict or distress. For children, separation is
also particularly difficult when it is followed by a number
of other changes to the family setting: for example, where
parents find new partners, where new relationships with step-
or half-siblings are involved, and where serial subsequent
separations take place and serial new partnerships form. There
seems to be a limit to the amount of change a child can cope
with. This may be due to individuals’ ability to withstand
stress. But it may also be that such a high degree of change
is likely to cause parents further stress: this may impair
their relationship with the child, at least temporarily.
• As serial partnerships become more common, we need
to move on from categorising the children of divorced and
separated parents as having an experience which is essentially
different from that of other children. It is time to recognise
that all children can be expected to undergo a number of transitions
in their family circumstances. We need to ensure that informal
support from friends and relations is supplemented by easily
accessible formal interventions to support those in particular
The programme suggests we need to understand more about:
• Which children need help and what kind of help they
• How effectively services support children and their
families and promote children’s short-, medium- or longer-term
• The relationship between short-term distress and long-term
• Formal interventions need to be
child-centred and available to all, working through schools
and through parents, on the basis of need rather than the
civil status of the parents. Children’s direct access
to services – without being dependent on their parents
for access – also needs further examination. The Green
Paper, Every child matters (September 2003), highlights the
provision of social and emotional support through the education
system so as to offer a universal, non-stigmatised support
service to all children as they experience a variety of personal
stresses throughout their childhood. This may offer an opportunity
to take forward this strategy.
• Children have very diverse experiences: in designing
services for them, one size will not fit all. We need to communicate
with children and young people, taking account of their perspectives
on what forms of support (both formal and informal) they would
benefit from. There is also a need to distinguish between
keeping children informed of what is happening in their lives,
involving them in decision-making, and providing them with
This Foundations was written by Mavis Maclean, Director of
the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy in the Department
of Social Policy and Social Work, University of Oxford.
This programme of research into the experience of children
and parents of separation and divorce draws on a variety of
methods. These include a systematic review of published work
(Rodgers and Pryor, 1998; Hawthorne et al., 2003), large-scale
quantitative work (Dunn and Deater-Deckard, 2001), smaller
qualitative studies which both raise questions and enrich
understanding of the statistical big picture (Pickford, 1999;
Smart and Stephens, 2000; Lewis et al. 2002; Wade and Smart,
2002; Trinder et al., 2002) and reviews of current service
provision (Wilson and Edwards, 2003; Hawthorne et al., 2003)
How to get further information
The following reports are available from York Publishing Services
Ltd, 64 Hallfield Road, York YO31 7ZQ, Tel: 01904 430033,
Fax: 01904 430868, or through this website. Where indicated,
pdfs are available for download free of charge from the website.
Where indicated, a four-page summary of the Findings of the
study is available from the Foundation, via this site or in
print form by calling 01904 615905 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buchanan, Ann, Eirini Flouri and Jane Lewis (forthcoming),
Fathers’ involvement: A study of resident and non-resident
fathers with teenage children.
Dunn, Judy and Kirby Deater-Deckard (2001), Children’s
views of their changing families, YPS/JRF (£10.95),
‘Children’s views of their changing families’,
Findings No. 931.
Hawthorne, Joanna, Julie Jessop, Jan Pryor and Martin Richards
(2003), Supporting children through family change: A review
of interventions and services for children of divorcing and
separating parents, YPS/JRF (£16.95; free pdf available),
‘Supporting children through family change: a review
of services’, Findings No. 323.
James, Adrian and Louise Sturgeon-Adams (1999), Helping families
after divorce: Assistance by order?, The Policy Press/JRF
(£10.95; no longer available from YPS, contact The Policy
Press: 0117 331 4054, email@example.com), ‘The use of
Family Assistance Orders in divorce and separation cases’,
Findings No. 579.
Lewis, Charlie, Amalia Papacosta and Jo Warin (2002), Cohabitation,
separation and fatherhood, YPS/JRF (£13.95), ‘Cohabitation,
separation and fatherhood’, Findings No. 552.
Perry, Alison, Gillian Douglas, Mervyn Murch, Kay Bader and
Margaret Borkowski (2000), How families cope financially on
marriage breakdown, Family Policy Studies Centre/JRF (£10.95;
no longer available through YPS, contact JRF publications
office: 01904 615905, firstname.lastname@example.org). ‘How
parents cope financially on marriage breakdown’, Findings
Pickford, Ros (1999), Fathers, marriage and the law, Family
Policy Studies Centre/JRF (£10.95), ‘Fathers,
marriage and the law’, Findings No. 989.
Rodgers, Bryan and Jan Pryor (1998), Divorce and separation:
The outcomes for children, JRF (£11.95). ‘Divorce
and separation: the outcomes for children’, Foundations
Smart, Carol and Pippa Stephens (2000), Cohabitation breakdown,
Family Policy Studies Centre/JRF (£12.95), ‘Cohabiting
parents’ experience of relationships and separation’,
Findings No. 460.
Trinder, Liz, Mary Beek and Jo Connolly (2002), Making contact:
How parents and children negotiate and experience contact
after divorce, YPS/JRF (£12.95; free pdf available),
‘Children’s and parents’ experience of contact
after divorce’, Findings No. 092.
Wade, Amanda and Carol Smart (2002), Facing family change:
Children’s circumstances, strategies and resources,
YPS/JRF (£12.95; free pdf available), ‘How primary
school children cope with family change’, Findings No.
Wilson, Anji and Janet Edwards with Susie Allen and Carol
Dasgupta (2003), Schools and family change: School-based support
for children experiencing divorce and separation, JRF (£13.95;
free pdf available), ‘School-based support work for
children whose parents have separated’, Findings Ref:
DfES (2003), Every child matters, The Stationery Office.
Home Office (1998), Supporting families, The Stationery Office.