By Lars Tornstam, translated by Dr. Mark Woods for MRA

In the future one can count on social workers to an increasing degree taking part in counselling and advice regarding the children of divorce and other broken relationships. One can reckon with an increasing percentage, of these children being in joint custody, displacing the custody disputes from a question of legal custody to a question of where the children shall dwell. In this research review, the investigations are examined and compared  for their effects on adjustment and development, of different custody and dwelling choices for the children of separated parents. The research results point rather universally to the advantages with that which the Swedes call half-dwelling, i.e. that parents aren’t just in the legal sense both responsible for their children, but also in sharing the daily practical responsibilities through having the children living alternatively with them.

People in many countries have developed a policy and a system of rules, with the children’s best interests as the guiding light, which allows separated parents to have shared custody of their children. A statistic which reflects this are the court/decisions about custody (where the parents have previously been married) which were made in the Family Court in Sweden in 1992. Here shared custody of children was 79%, mothers alone had custody in 19% of cases and fathers in about 2% (Vårdnadstvistutredningen, 1995).

In Sweden there is also a new law being created for the care of children. Previously the courts have been unable to decide on joint custody if either of the parents opposed it. Among the Scandinavian countries, the courts in both Finland and Norway already have that possibility. The trend is, however, undoubtedly that more and more decisions on joint custody are going to be handed down.  This can, as the Swedish Vårdnadstvistutredningen (1995) points out, lead to parents, in the future, disputing the children’s dwelling place rather than who has legal custody.  This makes it much more important for all the participants, (in the counselling and/or processes of decision making about the dwelling place for children of broken relationships), to base their conclusions and operations on scientific knowledge and proven experience. Lassbo (1994) states that with regards to the family structure’s effect on children’s development, there is too little empirical knowledge and too much guesswork and theorizing.

Therefore a literary search into scientific research on this subject has been undertaken. Mainly, to investigate where science and proven experience stands regarding the dwelling of the children of separated parents, and in particular to look into the question of “half-dwelling” versus “whole dwelling” consequences. Searching via library data bases and search engines on the Internet gave a very poor result with regards to Scandinavian research in the area. The main part of the research which is reviewed here, comes from North America. Against these findings, the argument may be raised that the conditions in other countries are so different from Scandinavian conditions that no relevant conclusions can be drawn. Lassbo (1994) feels that for example countries with well developed social politics, such as those in Scandinavia, cannot be compared in the social political arena with less developed countries. Welfare systems may create, for example, good external conditions for one-parent families to function successfully – which is one of the main messages in Lassbo’s (op. cit.) article.

If one, in spite of the above mentioned objections, considers that children’s psycho/social needs and development are pretty much the same in most countries, we should not ignore studies from non-Scandinavian countries, but instead gain essential information from them.

Read the full report here Dwelling Choices for Children of Separated Parents (pdf)


[1] Originally published in Nordisk Socialt Arbeid, 1996(3):193-203.

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