One of the most difficult situations facing both parents and children after separation and divorce is when one parent wants to relocate to another community. In this American mobile society, residential moves are very common among parents after divorce. Opportunities for new jobs or higher education lead parents to file to relocate with their children. Other times, parents want to relocate in order to move to areas where they will have additional support in the form of extended family. This is usually contested as the other parent feels as if they will be cut out of the child’s life and the quality of the relationship will be harmed. This is especially true for very young children. A parent has a constitutional right to travel and pursue opportunities even if that means relocating, but the other parent has a constitutional right to be involved with the child. Case law stresses the need for an individualized determination of the best interests of the child in a relocation case.
We use the forensic psychology model for evaluating the child custody relocation case developed by William Austin, Ph.D. The relocation risk assessment model was published in 2000 and revised in 2008. It is a research-based model for evaluation. The relocation risk assessment model also emphasizes the need for careful investigation for describing the relative advantages and disadvantages to the child and family associated with relocating versus staying in the home community, possibly with a change in custody if the parent had to move without the child. We gather sufficient data to allow the court to visualize what life would be like for the child living in the new community with the moving parent versus living in the home community with the nonmoving parent.
The Relocation Risk Assessment contains a number of risk factors that should be addressed to determine what is in the best interest of the child during an assessment for a pending relocation. The following is a description of the major risk factors to be assessed:
- AGE OF THE CHILD: Very young children are at risk of disrupting their attachment relationship with their non-residential parent. There is also a risk of the non-residential parent dropping out of the child’s life or at best playing a diminished role. Adolescents are also at high risk since in a relocation situation the teenager may end up without a father figure to stabilize the adolescent behavior. Furthermore, traveling to the non-custodial parent also means taking the teenager away from their peer support network which may lead to the adolescent feeling that they’re missing out on peer activities while with the non-custodial parent.
- GEOGRAPHICAL DISTANCE AND TRAVEL TIME: Whenever either parent lives greater than a one-hour travel time from each other there is an increased likelihood that the noncustodial parent will drop out of the child’s life or have a diminished role in the child’s life (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002).
- PSYCHOLOGICAL STABILITY OF THE RELOCATING PARENTS AND PARENTING EFFECTIVENESS OF BOTH PARENTS: It is important to know the psychological stability and level of functioning of the relocating parent. If the parent has a significant psychiatric disorder or an addiction this could affect the parent’s ability to manage the child’s adjustment to a new location. For example, if the parent is struggling with maintaining sobriety the child may not get the necessary attention and assistance to help them adapt to a new environment, school, friends, and activities. An impaired parent will be challenged to effectively assist the child with the adjustment to their new location. To further complicate the situation is the child’s missing the relationship with the non-custodial parent which is likely to be a significant loss for the child.
- INDIVIDUAL RESOURCES/INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES IN THE CHILD TEMPERAMENT/SPECIAL DEVELOPMENTAL NEEDS: The child’s temperament and resourcefulness should be assessed to evaluate any special needs and strengths of the child. In 1986, Block, et al. studied young children and found that pre-separation measures of
psychological functioning were the best predictors of post-divorce adjustment. In other studies temperamental differences of children predicted post-divorce adjustment. It should also be noted that males are at significantly higher risk during relocation. Children with an easier temperament are better able to handle the challenges inherent in relocation to a new area. Some of the areas to assess in the child are their social and emotional intelligence and their ability for successful social interaction. This social competence would help the child adapt social to the new environment and assist the child in developing new peer relationships and support networks.
- INVOLVEMENT BY THE NONRESIDENTIAL PARENT: A number of researchers have studied the relationship between children and their non-custodial parent. The research is clear that children have their best overall adjustment, post-divorce, when they have meaningful relationships with both of their parents combined with low conflict between their parents. Research also indicates that children do better when they have a relationship with their non-custodial parent. The evaluator needs to assess the extent to which the particular relocation will alter the non-residential parent’s parenting time with the child following the relocation.
- GATEKEEPING AND SUPPORT FOR THE OTHER PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIP: In a prior edition of The Family Lawyer (Drutman & Schechtman, February 2011) we wrote on the concept of gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is essentially the custodial parent restricting or excluding the non-custodial parent from child care and involvement with the child. Research has shown that children do better when they have relationships with both of their parents. A relocating parent who uses gatekeeping behaviors to exclude the non-custodial parent leaves the child at risk for alienation, visitation refusal, and other troubling behaviors.
- INTERPARENTAL CONFLICT AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: Numerous studies have shown the negative effects on the children of exposure to verbal conflict between parents. This is particularly true of children whose parents are divorced. As the level of interparental fighting increases, so does the risk to the child. Domestic violence places the child in significant risk regardless if the violence is directly targeted at the child or not.
- RECENTNESS OF THE MARITAL SEPARATION: Hetherington (1993, 1998 & 1999) researched the effects of conflict on children post-divorce. Hetherington noted that conflict is significantly higher during the time of the divorce and for a period of time after the divorce is final. During that period of time there is less authoritative parenting, greater parental stress, and poorer adjustment by the children. It should be noted that parental conflict tends to decrease at approximately 2 years post-divorce. It is much more risky to make a move during the first two years post-divorce since the family unit is still in transition and adjusting to the new family constellation. Holding off on relocation for at least two years post-divorce may allow the individual family members to psychological settle down and thus have the psychological resources to assist the child. To determine the appropriateness of relocation it is important to assess all of the above issues to thoroughly seek out the risks that are facing the child if they move to the new location or they stay in their current location.
Additional factors investigated include:
- Extended Family Involvement Community Comparisons
- School Comparisons
- Knowledge about and Understanding about the Child
- Child Preference
A relocation risk assessment simply informs the Court what the risk and level of harm is to the children in the case of relocation. The evaluator does not make custody recommendations.
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