Senior writer for The Age
parents who share the care of their children appear to be managing it far more amicably, with a marked decline in conflict between former partners and more people reporting friendly or co-operative relationships.
Research by academics at the Australian National University found that among parents who separated in late 2009, only 15 per cent reported being in conflicted or fearful relationships with their former partners. That compared with nearly a third of parents who split in late 2006.
The data, based on people who registered with the Child Support Agency, also showed an increase in separated parents in friendly and co-operative relationships. It had risen from about half among those who split in 2006 to 61 per cent three years later.
The shared care of children is becoming more common with a near doubling in the past decade, although it occurs in only about one in nine separated families. Shared care is defined as when the children are with each parent for at least 30 per cent of the time.
ANU Associate Professor Bruce Smyth, a report co-author, said the data was encouraging.
It came despite concerns family law changes in 2006 – which require greater consideration by courts to consider shared care – could lead to more children suffering from being used as a bargaining chip between parents in high conflict.
Dr Smyth said there were some big surprises from the research, including that increases in shared care largely occurred before the change to the law and had plateaued since. Another was separating partners were becoming more co-operative.
Dr Smyth said one important factor might be the extra money spent on support services, such as family relationship centres.
”Not going to court and fight but instead to talk things through is changing the complexion of how things are run,” Dr Smyth said.
There also appeared to be a continuing cultural shift to fathers wanting to take a greater role in their children’s lives.
Shared-care families tend to be dual income with higher educated parents, research shows. They are likely to live close to each other and have some flexibility over work hours. That makes positive outcomes for children more likely.
But not all shared care works for children, Dr Smyth said. Among parents in high conflict with court-imposed rigid arrangements, the outcomes can be poor with children feeling ”caught and used”.
Dr Smyth said the best arrangements were those that were flexible and reflected the children’s needs.