Child Custody Disputes within the Context of Child Protection Investigations: Secondary Analysis of the Canadian Incident Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect

By Saini, Michael A.; Black, Tara et al. | Child Welfare, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

Child Custody Disputes within the Context of Child Protection Investigations: Secondary Analysis of the Canadian Incident Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect


Saini, Michael A., Black, Tara, Fallon, Barbara, Marshall, Alena, Child Welfare


Working with parents and children caught in child custody disputes after or during separation and divorce can be challenging for professionals when they lack a clear understanding of the unique circumstances of these disputes. To address this gap, this study reports on national data about child custody disputes within the context of child protection investigations by using secondary analysis of the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS-2003). A descriptive profile of custody cases compared to non-custody cases is important to begin informing the field about the unique characteristics of families involved in both family law and child protection proceedings. The sample includes child maltreatment investigations as children came into contact with child protection services over a three-month sampling period. Based on the 11,562 child maltreatment investigations, 12% involved a child custody dispute. Child custody dispute files were more likely to be opened more than three times and they had higher rates of malicious referrals, compared to non-custody child protection files. Twenty percent of investigations involving a child custody dispute were for children's exposure to domestic violence, followed by physical abuse, emotional harm and neglect. Children involved in custody disputes were reported to have higher proportion of emotional harm and more functioning issues compared to children not caught in their parents' custody disputes. Parental alcohol abuse was also significantly higher in child custody cases. Implications for child protection systems are explored. Suggestions are made to improve child protection procedures for the earlier detection of child custody cases and for the enhancement of specialized knowledge for workers to effectively intervene and protect children from the negative consequences of adult conflict after separation and divorce.

Parents rarely separate without any conflict (Drapeau, Gagne, Saint-Jacques, Lepine, 6c Ivers, 2009), as parents typically experience an acute-reaction period of conflict immediately following separation and divorce (Saini, 2012). Parents unable to resolve their conflicts often turn to the family courts and other professionals to help resolve disputes over custody and access to the children (Hetherington 6c Kelly, 2002). An estimated 5 % to 12 % of families will remain in very high-conflict situations despite the passage of time (Saini 6c Birnbaum, 2007). Parents in high conflict also tend to have repeated involvement with the judicial system, often with little or no resolution of the dispute (Bala, Birnbaum, 6c Martinson, 2010). Research has shown that this exposure to high conflict, combined with an untimely resolution of legal proceedings, increases the risk of emotional harm to children (Bala et al., 2010). High-conflict families are most often described as those with prolonged disputes regarding child custody and access (Hetherington 6c Kelly, 2002; Johnston, 1994; Stewart, 2001), repeated allegations of poor parenting against the other parent, and severe anger and distrust (Johnston, 1994; Kelly, 2007; Saini 2007) and higher rates of psychological problems for both children and their parents (Amato 6c Keith, 1991; Burke, McIntosh, 6c Gridley, 2007).

Due to the association between high-conflict separation and prolonged child custody disputes (Bala et al., 2010), child custody disputes present unique challenges to child protection workers. Although every situation is unique, there are several typical scenarios for the involvement of child protection services in high-conflict divorce situations. For example, an ex-partner or extended family member may make several referrals to child protection services regarding the care of the child in the other parent's home. After several unsubstantiated investigations, child protection services can decide to become involved in the family situation to address the interparental conflict and the impact of the conflict on the child. …

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