Chapter 7 Non-resident Parents
Tessa Hill, ScotCen Social Research
Levels of non-resident parenthood in Scotland are considerable. Estimates from the 2009/10 Scottish Household Survey (SHS) indicated that around 21% of households with children (aged 0 - 15) in Scotland were single parent households (National Statistics, 2011). This figure has remained largely static over the last ten years - in the SHS results for 2001/02, the corresponding figure was 22% - although some change did occur prior to that.
Whilst non-resident parenthood is not synonymous with non-resident fatherhood, non-resident parents are overwhelmingly fathers. Amongst the single parent households in the 2009/10 SHS data, 88% were headed by a female.
Whilst initial increases in levels of non-resident parenthood were largely attributable to rising divorce rates, shifting demographic trends - most notably the considerable rise in non-marital births - have also altered the face of non-resident parenthood. Such births have been steadily increasing in recent years reaching 51% in 2011. Of course unmarried parenthood is not tantamount to non-resident parenthood with many non-marital births jointly registered within a cohabiting relationship - 34% in 2011 (GRO, 2012). A significant minority however are not, instead being jointly registered to non-cohabiting couples or registered solely by the child's mother, 12% and 5% in 2011 respectively. This is reflective of recent findings that an increasing number of children have a non-resident parent from birth (Wilson, 2010). GUS data suggests that 78% of children with a non-resident parent had a birth certificate with both parents' names on it.
Parental relationship status can have significant consequences for non-resident parent involvement. Studies in both the UK and US have found that fathers have lower levels of involvement where children are born outwith marriage (Marryat et al. 2009; Cheadle et al. 2010) and that cohabiting relationships are at greater risk of breakdown in the early years of a child's life (Carlson et al. 2003; Kiernan et al. 2011).
This literature suggests that those parents who have spent a longer period living with the child tend to have higher levels of involvement when they are no longer co-resident. An issue of key concern therefore, is where non-resident parenthood commences with the birth of the child. Recent findings from the Millennium Cohort Study indicated that some 31% of never resident fathers had no contact with the child at age nine months (Kiernan, 2006:664). In addition, the quality of the inter-parental relationship is again important with a co-operative, low conflict relationship having been found to be conducive to positive non-resident parent involvement (Dunn et al. 2004) although not necessarily to levels of involvement (Marryat et al. 2009).
Scottish law and policy seek to promote the involvement of non-resident parents in their children's lives. The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 provides that all fathers married to the child's mother at the child's birth have automatic parental responsibilities and rights (PRRs). The Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 extended automatic PRRs to unmarried fathers who jointly register a child's birth on or after 4 May 2006. For non-resident parents with PRRs, the 1995 Act provides that the maintenance of regular contact with their child is both a right and a responsibility.
As the 2006 legislative changes will apply to the second birth cohort (BC2) but not the first, it is likely that a greater number of fathers in the second birth cohort have PRRs than fathers in the first - though it is not possible to examine this in the data. Since research on attitudes to family law (Morrison et al. 2004) has shown that many people thought that cohabiting fathers had parental rights even when they did not, it is not clear whether this legal change will result in greater levels of non-resident father involvement in BC2.
At the same time as the 2006 legislative measures, the Parenting Agreement for Scotland was introduced aimed at separating parents. Developed by the Scottish Government in conjunction with family support organisations, the Parenting Agreement is an information pack for parents aimed at facilitating an amicable separation and promoting the child's welfare as parents' primary concern.
Non-resident parenthood brings with it a host of practical issues and concerns. For the
non-resident parent, their physical absence from the household may act as a barrier to involvement in their child's upbringing. However, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 requires that those with PRRs are involved in decisions relating to their child's upbringing, including matters of health, development and welfare, regardless of whether they reside with the child.
A further important practical concern is the geographical distance between the non-resident parent and child. Due to a range of issues, including constraints of time and finance, increased geographical distance can perhaps unsurprisingly serve to hinder non-resident parent involvement (Trinder et al. 2002; Marryat et al. 2009).
The negotiation and management of practical issues such as these, in addition to wider arrangements as regards contact and financial support, are important aspects of non-resident parenthood. A range of family support agencies as well as the courts are available to assist parents with making such arrangements. However, most parents make arrangements informally by mutual agreement with no outside intervention. Whilst some enlist the assistance of family support agencies, very few arrangements are made through recourse to the courts (Wasoff, 2007; Scottish Government, 2008). Promoting positive parental relationships and better supporting parents through separation are key commitments in the Scottish Government's recently published National Parenting Strategy (Scottish Government, 2012).
The prevalence of non-resident parenthood (21% of all children) and the characteristics of lone parent families have already been discussed in chapter 2 (section 2.3). But the main carers of children with a non-resident parent were asked a series of questions about that parent. These covered the the resident parent's relationship with the non-resident parent, the frequency and nature of the contact the child has with them, how the contact arrangements were arranged and the influence they have in some areas of the child's life. The findings reported below, therefore only relate to families where the child has a non-resident parent.
7.2 Key findings
- At 10 months of age, 21% of Scottish children had a non-resident biological parent.
- In families where there was a non-resident parent, 57% of parents had never co-habited and 91% had never been married.
- 24% of children did not have contact with their non-resident parent.
- Non-resident parents who lived further away from the child, who had poorer relationships with the resident parent and who were reported as being less interested in the child (by the resident parent) were all less likely to have frequent contact with the child.
- In 40% of families with a non-resident parent, 40% of resident parents said they would almost always ask the non-resident parent when making major decisions concerning
7.3 Co-habitation and relationship history
In 91% of families where there was a non-resident parent, the parents had never been married. 6% of parents had been married or in a civil partnership, but were now separated and 3% were either divorced or had been in a civil partnership that was now dissolved. In the remaining cases, (1% of all families with a non-resident parent, 0.2% of the whole sample) a parent was deceased. These latter cases were not asked any further questions.
In most families where there was a non-resident biological parent, the parents had not previously lived together (57%). However, 43% had lived together for some time including 16% who had lived together for less than a year, 19% for between one and five years and 7% for more than five years (Figure 7.1).
Base - all children with a non-resident biological parent: n = 1139
7.4 Current relationship
10% of non-resident parents were currently living with someone else (as reported by the resident part). Around one-quarter (26%) were reported to have children with someone else.
Resident parents were asked to describe their relationship with the non-resident parent. Responses are shown in Table 7.1. Relationships tended to be very positive with 73% of resident parents saying their relationship with the non-resident parent was fairly or very good. Only 10% said it was fairly or very bad.
|Neither good nor bad||17|
|Base: all in current contact with non-resident parent||889|
7.5 Contact with the child
24% of children with a non-resident parent had no contact with that parent. Almost half of these children (45%) had not had contact since birth. Amongst those who did have contact, the majority (68%) saw or spoke to their non-resident parent weekly or more more often. Only 8% of children had only monthly or less frequent contact (Table 7.2).
|5-6 times a week||9|
|3-4 times a week||14|
|Once or twice a week||18|
|Less often but at least once a month||6|
|Less often than once a month||3|
|No current contact||24|
|Base: all with non-resident parent||1159|
7.5.1 Contact arrangements
The vast majority of parents (88%) had made contact arrangements informally with the non-resident parent. 4% had made arrangements formally using lawyers but not in court, and 1% had been through a court. A further 1% had made arrangements informally but using a mediator. The remaining 6% had made arrangements in some other way.
7.5.2 Factors influencing contact
Figure 7.2 demonstrates the clear relationship between frequency of contact between the non-resident parent and the child, and the respondent's perception of the non-resident parent's interest in the child. Frequency of contact is considerably higher in those cases where the resident parent perceives a higher level of interest in the child in the non-resident parent. For example, 95% of those cases where the non-resident parent was reported to be 'very interested' in the child had contact at least weekly compared with 55% of those where the non-resident parent was 'not very interested'.
Base: All children with a non-resident biological parent: very interested = 645, somewhat interested = 171 , not very interested = 56, not at all interested = 15
The nature of the parental relationship has a similar relationship with frequency of contact. As shown in Table 7.3, children whose natural parents have a better relationship are more likely to be in more frequent contact with their non-resident parent than those whose parents have a poorer relationship.
|Respondent relationship with non-resident parent|
| How often child sees |
|Fairly or very good %|| Neither good nor bad |
|Fairly or very bad %|| All |
|Weekly or more often||94||82||62||89|
|Monthly or less often||6||18||38||11|
|Base: all with current contact||646||144||87||882|
The distance the child's non-resident parent lived from them also affected how often the child saw that parent. Over 9 out of 10 children who lived within half an hour of their non-resident parent saw them weekly or more often. More precisely, 97% of children living within 10 minutes and 93% living 11-30 minutes away had contact at least weekly compared with 71% of children living 31-59 minutes away and 69% of children living 1-2 hours away The two-hour threshold appeared to have the largest impact on weekly contact; only 30% of children whose non-resident parent lived 2 or more hours away had contact weekly or more often.
|How far child lives from non-resident parent||Percentage in weekly or more frequent contact||Base: all with current contact|
|10 minutes or less||97||462|
|11 to 30 minutes||93||263|
|31 to 59 minutes||71||67|
|1 to 2 hours||69||26|
|More than 2 hours||30||60|
Children whose non-resident parent was not currently married or not living with a partner were three times more likely than those who were married or living with someone else to see their non-resident parent on a weekly basis (77% compared with 26%).
7.5.3 Other contributions
Table 7.5 lists the proportion of non-resident parents that contribute in other ways to their child's upbringing.
The vast majority of non-resident parents had supported the child's upbringing or household in some way. Only 13% had given no such support. The most common contribution was through the purchase of clothes or equipment for the child, reported in 75% of cases. 64% of non-resident parents had taken their child on outings or daytrips and 47% had paid maintenance for the child.
|Bought clothes or equipment for child||75|
|Taken on outings or day trips||64|
|Paid maintenance for child||47|
|Helped out in some other way||42|
|Paid rent or mortgage||11|
|Not helped out in any of these ways||13|
|Base: all where non-resident parent made some contribution||1040|
7.6 Non-resident parent's influence in decisions
Parents were asked how often they consulted the non-resident parent about major decisions concerning their child. Table 7.6 shows the responses given.
Non-resident parents were less likely to be consulted on major decisions if there was a difficult parental relationship. In 68% of cases where the relationship between the parents was reported as fairly or very bad, the resident parent said they never consulted the non-resident parent on major decisions. In contrast, the same was true for just 7% of those with a fairly or very good relationship. Conversely, 50% of those who had a fairly or very good relationship said that they always consulted the non-resident parent on major decisions compared with 8% who had a fairly or very bad relationship.
|Is non-resident parent's name on child's birth certificate||Frequency of contact||All|
|Yes||No||At least weekly||Monthly or less||No contact|
|Never or almost never||15||42||13||51||47||18|
|Always or almost always||41||16||43||15||0||40|
|Base: all in current contact with non-resident parent||708||88||781||97||6||890|
Parents were also asked how much influence the non-resident parent has over two specific aspects the of the child's life: immunisations and the food they eat. Figure 7.3 shows the responses to these questions. Non-resident parents were significantly more likely to have some influence on immunisations than diet. 44% of non-resident parents were reported to have 'a great deal' of influence on the child's immunisations whereas only 27% had the same level of influence on the food the child eats.
The nature of the relationship between the natural parents affected how much influence the non-resident parent had. Those non-resident parents whose relationship was described as fairly or very bad had less of an influence on immunisations and the child's diet - 58% had no influence on immunisations and 80% had no influence on food choices - than non-resident parents where the relationship was fairly or very good - 24% and 24% respectively.
Base: all in current contact with non-resident parent, n = 827
At 10 months of age, one-fifth of children born in Scotland between March 2010 and February 2011 had a non-resident biological parent. The levels of contact between these children and their non-resident parent, the involvement of the non-resident parent in the child's life, the relationship between the parents and ways in which the non-resident parent supports the child's upbringing, all vary - yet all are also interlinked.
The quality of the parental relationship, in particular, seems to be key to ensuring a broader positive involvement of the non-resident parent in the child's life. Where the relationship is better, as reported by the resident parent, the non-resident parent has more frequent contact, offers more support, and is more involved in decisions about the child's life.
It appears, therefore, that the National Parenting Strategy's focus on promoting positive couple relationships is warranted. Improving relationships may not only reduce the incidence of parental separation in the first place but also, when it does occur, through the right support, allow separated parents to maintain, or develop a good relationship. This, in turn - the data in this chapter suggests - will benefit the child/non-resident parent relationship.
Most non-resident parents are either often or always consulted about major decisions surrounding the child. GUS data do not tell us where there is a PRR in place. However, we do know if the birth was jointly registered. Given that the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 extended automatic PRRs to unmarried fathers who jointly registered a child's birth on or after 4 May 2006, a PRR will be present in all cases where there has been joint registration. Yet in one quarter of cases where the non-resident parents name was on the birth certificate, that parent was never or rarely consulted on major decisions. We saw that level of interest in the child also varied amongst non-resident parents. This may be driving some of the lower consultation levels, with less interested non-resident parents less likely to be consulted. However, it is important that parental responsibilities are acknowledged by all parents especially when greater interest will likely result in greater contact and involvement overall.
Teasing out the intricacies of these data is beyond the scope of this report. Nevertheless, some key themes are clear. It must be borne in mind, however, that all data in these cases is provided by the resident parent and is therefore subject to some bias which may affect responses. To generate a full understanding of parental relationships after separation and the factors which affect contact and involvement it would be necessary to also obtain the perspectives of non-resident parents themselves.
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Email: Sharon Glen