Panel Paper: Do Noncustodial Parents Have More Contact and Better Relationships with Their Most Recent Noncustodial Child?

Friday, November 3, 2017
Stetson BC (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Lawrence Berger, Maria Cancian, Daniel R. Meyer and Angela Guarin Aristizabal, University of Wisconsin - Madison

Families with children have become increasingly complex. Parental relationships are often unstable, involving relationship dissolution, re-partnering, and, increasingly, new-partner fertility. Social policy has struggled to respond to these family changes; one of the main challenges is determining the appropriate child support expectations and other aspects of fathers’ involvement in these situations. There is growing awareness that a significant number of fathers have limited resources to provide support to children even in one family, and more recent recognition that many fathers with children in multiple families do not have the resources to provide adequate levels of economic support and involvement to all their children. If fathers do not have the resources to provide full support to their nonresident children, they may feel they have to prioritize some children over others. Some observers have suggested that some fathers “trade” families, by focusing on the children from their most recent relationship.

A recurring debate in the literature is whether fathers’ financial contributions and contact with children are substitutes or complements. While formal support may be constrained to be relatively equal, earlier work suggests that fathers are more likely to make informal financial and in-kind contributions to children of more recent partners. However, we know very little about the extent to which fathers’ contact with children varies, and how this variation might be related to patterns of in-kind contributions. This has potentially large consequences for child well-being and child support policy.

We use new data from the Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration program, a federally-funded eight-state intervention for noncustodial parents (NCPs) who are behind in their child support payments and have employment difficulties. We use data from baseline surveys of over 9,000 NCPs who enrolled in the demonstration between its onset in October 2013 and September 2016, making this the largest sample available of an understudied group that is quite important for social policy.

Preliminary findings show that only about one-third of these NCPs had nonresident children with only one custodial parent. More complex family responsibilities are common, with one in six having had children with three or more ex-partners and having both nonresident and resident children. We focus on NCPs who have nonresident children in two or more families and document patterns and correlates of NCPs’ contact and quality of the relationship with their oldest nonresident child compared to their youngest nonresident child. We find that they have more contact and report a better relationship quality with the youngest child, though differences in relationship quality are modest, relative to differences in contact. We examine the level of any contact, in person contact, overnights and relationship quality, and how these relate to reports of formal and informal child support payments and in-kind contributions.

Results demonstrate the significant contact and contributions that NCPs report for all their children, even though these children are spread across multiple families. We discuss the implications of the relationship between financial support and contact for child support policy, child well-being, and for our understanding of fathering in complex families.