Resolving Issues of Access: Noncustodial Parents and Visitation Rights

Article excerpt

An overview of the programs that have been designed to increase noncustodial parents' access to their children following separation or divorce, and an evaluation of their success.

This article is a shortened version of a chapter that will appear in The Effects of Child Support Enforcement on Nonresident Fathers, edited by Irwin Garfinkle, Sara S. McLanahan, Dan Meyer, and Judith A. Seltzer, which is scheduled for publication by the Russell Sage Foundation later this year.

Data collection for this study was supported by a grant from the State Judicial Institute and a contract from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement to Policy Studies, Inc., with a subcontract to the Center for Policy Research. The points of view expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official positions or policies of the agencies that funded the research.

Noncustodial parents have long contended that the increasingly aggressive enforcement of child support obligations has not been matched by an equally zealous enforcement of visitation rights. In response to these assertions, Congress adopted a national grant program as part of its landmark welfare reform legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193), to facilitate noncustodial parents' access to and visitation of their children by means of activities including mediation (both voluntary and mandatory), counseling, education, development of parenting plans, visitation enforcement (including monitoring supervision and neutral drop off and pick up), and development of guidelines for visitation and alternative custody arrangements. [1]

The inclusion of mandates regarding access and visitation in P.L. 104-193 is tantamount to official acknowledgment that children have the right to continuing relationships with--as well as financial support from--both parents. Further, it is indicative of a growing recognition by lawmakers and lay people alike that lack of access is a serious problem for many families and that a lack of visitation rights can contribute to the nonpayment of child support. The recently established access grant program (funded at $10 million in fiscal year 1997) represents a significant departure from past U.S. child support enforcement policy, which has historically focused on the importance of financial support and ignored or disregarded most issues related to parents' visitation rights.

This article provides an overview of the range of programs that have been designed to increase noncustodial parents' access to their children following separation or divorce and explores the programs' success in promoting contact with children and increasing child support payments. It is based on two investigations conducted by the Center for Policy Research. One study, initiated in 1990 and funded by the State Judicial Institute (SJI), involved an evaluation of five court-based programs designed to facilitate access in jurisdictions located in Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, and Michigan. The second study, completed jointly with Policy Studies, Inc., involved the evaluation of the Child Access Demonstration Projects. The evaluation of the demonstration projects was funded by two awards by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE): a 1990 grant to complete evaluations in Florida, Idaho, and Indiana and a 1991 grant to evaluate programs in Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, and Massachusetts. At the SJI sites, there were 1,164 potential respondents, and a response rate of 34 percent; at the OCSE sites, there were 1,122 baseline cases for the first set of evaluations and 1,314 base-line cases for the second, with retention rates of 57 percent and 65 percent, respectively.

Each study involved visits to program sites, observations of access interventions, and interviews with key staff and relevant judges and lawyers. To gain insight into the experiences of parents who were served by the programs, the research also included the use of questionnaires, telephone interviews, and reviews of participants' court files and child support agency records. …