This study evaluated the results of eight Child Access Demonstration Projects from two waves of demonstrations testing the effectiveness of mediation, counseling, education, and visitation monitoring programs designed to facilitate noncustodial parents' access to their children following divorce and separation. The incidence of access problems ranged from 31 percent to 4 percent of cases. The nature of access disputes varied widely; such disputes were reported by both the custodial and noncustodial parents. Making both parents attend mediation sessions is seen as critical and difficult. Where both parties attended, mediation visitation increased, relitigation was low, and there was increased child support compliance for the experimental vis-a-vis the control groups. Other interventions (e.g., parenting classes, counseling) which were done for severely conflicted parties or at a distance from the divorce/separation were not seen as making an additional impact in these areas. Also, the timing of access disputes was unaffected by the demonstrations.
As set forth in the Family Support Act of 1988, this evaluation explored the effect of two waves of Child Access Demonstration projects on the amount of time required to resolve access disputes; reductions in litigation related to access disputes; improvements in compliance with court-ordered child support amounts; and promotion of the emotional adjustment of children. It also assessed the extent and nature of child access disputes as well as parental satisfaction with the demonstrations.
Recent research in child psychology shows generally that close, frequent, and positive contact with the father following divorce and separation is beneficial for the child.
Child access is also important for child support enforcement. Recent Census data and research studies have indicated that where noncustodial parents have visitation rights or joint custody they tend to be more compliant with child support orders, although it is difficult to show cause and effect since the parents wanting to see the child may also be the better payers. Desire for increased child contact may follow child support payment rather than vice versa. Moreover, denial of visitation is seen as the major reason for nonpayment of child support for noncustodial parents who have money to pay child support.
There has been considerable pressure for the system to give support to the needs of noncustodial as well as custodial parents. Over 43 States authorize joint custody. There are currently over 200 court-based divorce mediation programs and over 280 fathers' rights groups organized throughout the country to facilitate child access by noncustodial parents.
Congress responded to the continuing public debate about the problem of noninvolvement by noncustodial parents and resulting litigation by directing HHS to conduct State demonstration projects relating to a variety of means of facilitating continuing involvement by the noncustodial parent.
In 1996 a new Federal grant program for child access and visitation programs was established nationwide.
Projects involved control and experimental group testing of different interventions (e.g., mediation, parenting education, community services for the noncustodial parent, group counseling, telephone monitoring of visitation) in a variety of public and private, court and administrative settings in Idaho, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Iowa. Evaluation was provided for randomly selected experimental and control groups on such issues as relitigation, relitigation timing, visitation, and child support compliance. There were over 2,400 cases in the baseline and 1,500 cases in follow-up interviews.
The incidence of child access problems for divorced and separated parents ranged from a low of 4 percent to almost 30 percent of the cases by site. This is consistent with findings of other studies. The nature of child access problems are varied and may be longstanding for both parents. Some frequent problems include insufficient amount of visitation time, being cut out of a child's life, scheduling visitation, fights during pick-up and drop-off, concerns for the child's safety, concerns about the other parent's parenting style and negativity, and continuing problems with the parents' relationship.
There is a big problem of nonattendance by one or the other spouse at mediation or related interventions; and some effort should be made to compel attendance. However, where both parents attend mediation there is a high (65 percent to 70 percent) rate of arriving at parenting plans.
Mediation did resolve conflict in many, but not all, cases, and problems decreased after interventions. Visitation days increased for most sites and child support compliance increased to over 20 percent. A majority of both parents indicate satisfaction with interventions. However, the speed of dispute resolution and incidence of relitigation were not affected. In addition, nonmediation experiments did not seem to have an impact. It was difficult to assess improvements in emotional child development where tested.
Use of Results
The results should assist State, local, and private agencies in establishing programs to improve the continued involvement by the noncustodial parent. Mediation interventions at the time of the divorce--when both parents can be made to attend--are most effective. When disputes are high charged or considerable time has elapsed, it is more difficult to make an impact. Scarce resources can be focused on cases with problems before they become intractable. The results of these demonstrations are more relevant for divorce and formal separation cases than for unwed situations.
Office of Child Support Enforcement
PIC ID: 5972.2
Policy Studies Inc., Denver, CO