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What happens to non-residential fathers' contact with their children?

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The general assumption about fathers following divorce is that they gradually have less and less contact with their children. Everyone seems to know some exceptions, but most generally think this is what happens. But what really is the case?

A recent study by Jacob Cheadle, Paul Amato and Valerie King published in Demography in 2010 suggests that the pattern of father involvement is more complicated and more interesting. Cheadle and his colleagues note that most scientific studies up to this time have confirmed the view of diminishing contact over time, but these researchers use a large longitudinal data set and more sophisticated data analysis methods to suggest that all fathers don't act alike.

The goal of this study was to identify patterns of involvement over time and to examine the characteristics of those fathers. They began with data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that followed over 12,000 young men and women ages 14-21 from 1978 to 2002, 14 years. As these young people formed families and had children, the researchers also collected data about their children. By 2002 in addition to the original sample of 12,000 men and women there were data from over 11,000 children. From this sample, the scientists identified 2,377 mothers and 4,864 children who had experienced at least one episode of father nonresidence. Again there was data on these families over about a 14-year period of time. To measure amount of contact, mothers reported on eight-category scale how often the nonresidential father visited the child face-to-face ranging from never to almost every day. (This contact did not include telephone calls, email, etc.)

Four patterns of father involvement emerge. The largest group of fathers (about 38%) consistently had high contact--roughly about once per week over the entire 14 year period. Children in this group were older, had better educated parents and these fathers were more likely to be paying child support. The next largest group (about 32%) were fathers who had contact only about once a year from the initial separation and continued to have little contact over the entire period. These fathers were more likely to have had children outside of marriage, were young and had less education. Importantly, many of these fathers lived more than 100 miles from their children within the first year following the separation.

The two other groups changed their pattern of involvement over time. Almost 23% of the fathers began with almost weekly contact, but by eight years post-separation were having contact only about once per year. Even by two years this group was only having contact every other month. Interestingly, these fathers were still likely to be making child support payments, but many also lived father away from their children due to a residential move (either themselves or their former partner). The final group representing 8 percent of the fathers increases their contact over time. They start at a few times per year and then increase until around 8 years when contact is almost weekly. This change in many cases appears to have resulted from the fathers living farther away the first years following separation, and then moving closer to their children. Both of these patterns suggest that geographic distance from children may be the biggest factor causing changes in the amount of contact with children.

These findings provide a much clearer picture about the patterns of contact by nonresidential fathers. There are clearly various patterns suggesting we should think about these fathers in more varied ways and begin to understand some of the factors that may cause more or less involvement. Those fathers who initially have little involvement may be the ones that we need to support in becoming more involved with their children.

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