Appendix A: Research Questions
DIVORCE, THE PARENTING PLAN, AND SHARED PARENTING IN WASHINGTON STATE - RESEARCH QUESTIONS
This study will gather information on the process of divorcing in Washington State, with particular emphasis on divorcing couples' formulation, negotiation, and implementation of parenting plans, especially plans that provide for shared parenting.
The parenting plan is the single most frequently expressed concern about divorce in Washington State. Concerns about the parenting plan span a range of issues from day-to-day practicalities (e.g., Are the forms easy to use?), to major policy dilemmas (e.g., What parenting arrangements best promote children's well-being?), as well as encompassing numerous other issues in between (e.g., Are parenting plans too detailed? Do couples stick to their plans? Are the plans gender-fair?).
A particular concern at the present time is the extent to which parenting plans provide for shared parenting. Do parents seek shared parenting? How often does the final parenting plan specify a shared arrangement? What do divorced parents actually do--do some parents share parenting informally, and do some parents obstruct shared parenting? Related concerns include: What post-divorce parenting arrangements promote children's well-being? How can the courts promote effective post-divorce parenting? and, Should shared parenting be the presumptive post-divorce parenting arrangement?
It is impossible to abstract the parenting plan from the broader process of divorce in Washington State, and any assessment of the strengths and shortcomings of the parenting plan must locate the formulation, negotiation, and implementation of parenting plans within the state's divorce process. Members of the Gender and Justice Commission expressed this view at the January 23, 1998, meeting and indicated a preference to undertake research examining the process of divorce, and the processes that give rise to various post-divorce parenting arrangements, rather than simply documenting the relative frequencies of various post-divorce arrangements.
For these reasons, the research effort should document the process of divorce in Washington State with a specific focus on the parenting plan and shared parenting.
- Specific Research Questions
The study will address a range of questions related to the formulation, negotiation, and implementation of parenting plans in Washington State. The specific questions may include the following:
1. The Formulation and Negotiation of Parenting Plans
- When do divorcing adults first learn about the parenting plan?
- From what sources do divorcing adults first learn about the parenting plan?
- Do divorcing adults initially receive accurate, adequate, and helpful information about the parenting plan and the process of formulating a parenting plan?
- What sources of information about the parenting plan are most/least helpful?
- Do divorcing parents face a "learning curve" with respect to the process of divorce and the parenting plan?
One concern that has been raised about the parenting plan is that some parents may lack the necessary information to make good choices in the parenting plan. For example, parents may not be aware that shared parenting is an option. Gathering this information will allow the courts to assess the extent to which divorcing parents have adequate information. If necessary, the courts could use this information to develop ways to improve the information provided to divorcing parents about their post-divorce parenting options and responsibilities.
2. Mandatory Forms and the Parenting Plan
- When do divorcing adults complete the mandatory parenting plan forms?
- Where do divorcing adults complete the mandatory parenting plan forms?
- Who (if anyone) provides assistance completing the mandatory parenting plan forms?
- How long does it take to complete the mandatory parenting plan forms?
- What discussions/negotiations (if any) about parenting arrangements take place before the completion of the mandatory forms?
- How long does it take couples to negotiate the content of their parenting plan?
- Who, if anyone, mediates discussions/negotiations about parenting arrangements?
- Where do discussions/negotiations about parenting arrangements take place?
- Do the mandatory forms prompt and structure a discussion/negotiation of post-divorce parenting; or are the forms largely completed once agreement has been reached; or are some issues decided ahead of time and some decided at the time when forms are completed?
- Which post-divorce parenting issues are most difficult and least difficult to resolve? Are these especially difficult and especially straightforward issues included on the parenting plan forms?
- Are there any issues currently covered by the parenting plan forms that could be left off the forms?
- Are there any issues not currently covered by the parenting plan forms that should be added to the forms?
- Overall, are adults satisfied or dissatisfied with the process of negotiating a parenting plan?
Different Commission and Committee members have offered widely differing accounts of how the mandatory forms are used in the formulation and development of parenting plans. Asking these questions will provide information about divorcing parents' use of the forms and how the forms fit into the process.
Commission and Committee members have also expressed the concern that the forms "have a life of their own," and may in some cases increase conflict. These research questions will address these issues.
Although these research questions are framed in terms of the mandatory forms, they also provide for the collection of information about the process by which a set of post-divorce parenting arrangements are negotiated, agreed, and committed to paper. That is, although the study might begin by asking people when, where, and with whom they completed the forms, it would also assess how the choices recorded on the forms were arrived at. Thus, these research questions will provide insight into issues such as conflict and negotiation surrounding the formulation of parenting plans and may provide recommendations about how to improve parenting plans and the process of parenting plan formation.
These research questions will also provide information about the extent to which parents seek shared parenting, and about how often the desire for shared parenting is incorporated onto the mandatory forms of the parenting plan.
3. After the Parents Have Agreed on a Parenting Plan
- Are parents satisfied with their parenting plans? What are the main reasons for, and types of, dissatisfaction?
- Are parents satisfied with the process of formulating a parenting plan? What additional assistance would have been helpful? What parts could have been streamlined?
- What are the main challenges parents face in formulating a parenting plan?
- Under what circumstances do courts modify parenting plans?
Addressing these research questions would provide information on parents' satisfaction with their own parenting plans and on parents' satisfaction with the process of developing their plan. This information will speak to the question of whether a significant number of parents would have liked shared parenting (or some other arrangement) but were not able to agree on it. These research questions will also support an assessment of factors influencing parents' levels of satisfaction with the process of parenting plan formation and their specific parenting plan. These research questions also address the issue of whether parents believe the process aided or hindered them in the formulation of their parenting plan. This research could lead to recommendations about ways to improve the process of parenting plan formation.
4. Parenting Seminars
- What proportion of parents attend parenting seminars?
- What is the content of these seminars?
- Do parents find the seminars helpful?
- Do parents who have attended a parenting seminar subsequently differ from parents who have not?
Several Commission members have expressed an interest in, and enthusiasm for, parenting seminars. Gathering limited information about participation in seminars would allow an assessment of the effectiveness of these seminars. This assessment might begin with the parents' perceptions of the usefulness of the seminars. It could eventually include an assessment of whether parenting seminars help reduce conflict, ease the process of negotiating a parenting plan, improve eventual compliance with parenting plans, and increase the likelihood that families will opt for specific arrangements such as shared parenting. This information will also allow an assessment of whether seminars improve parents' satisfaction with the process and with their own parenting plan. This information could form the basis of recommendations about the continuation, expansion, and content of parenting seminars.
5. Post-Divorce Parenting
- What are the most common court-approved post-divorce parenting arrangements in Washington State?
- Are there any "modal" parenting plans? That is, are there any sets of arrangements that have become widespread or typical; or are all post-divorce arrangements unique?
- How common is shared parenting?
- Do parents who want shared parenting get it?
- What are the obstacles to shared parenting?
- How closely does parents' behavior comply with their parenting plan?
- Do parents obstruct the parenting plan?
- Do parents informally revise the parenting plan?
- How often do parents go back to court? Why do parents go back to court--to resolve conflict, or to regularize informal arrangements?
- How satisfied or dissatisfied are parents with their arrangements?
There appears to be widespread interest in gathering data on both the content of final parenting plans and on parents' subsequent parenting behavior. That is, what do parents agree to, and what do they actually do. Gathering this information will support an assessment of the frequency with which shared parenting is provided for in divorce settlements and the frequency with which couples actually share parenting. These data would also allow an assessment of noncompliance with the parenting plan, as well as formal and informal modifications to the parenting plan. Finally, the data would assess parents' satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their parenting plans, and would support an assessment of factors related to satisfaction or dissatisfaction.
6. The Impact of Post-Divorce Parenting
- Does shared parenting improve the wellbeing of children post divorce, relative to children raised under other post-divorce parenting arrangements?
Policy makers and practitioners have expressed a strong need for information about the impact of various post-divorce parenting strategies on children. Information developed could provide guidance to practitioners about what post-divorce parenting strategies should be encouraged.
The delineation of a full study design is beyond the scope of my current contract. Presumably, researchers' responses to the RFP will include a full description of their research approach. However, Commission and Committee members raised several important issues.
Issues for Future Research
Commission and Committee members expressed a strong interest in developing additional research projects in the future. Questions of interest include:
- The research project should make appropriate use of existing research, including national studies and studies based in other jurisdictions. Existing research can provide insights into appropriate research strategies, and provides important contextual information for the research.
- It will not be feasible to conduct original research on the consequences of post-divorce parenting for children's wellbeing. This is because to conduct adequate work in this area would require a large study of children of divorce with repeated, in depth evaluation and observation of the children and their parents. These types of studies are typically very expensive and very time consuming. Several studies that assess the impact of post-divorce parenting strategies on child wellbeing have been conducted under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Education. Accordingly, there was support for preparing a review of existing research on post-divorce parenting strategies and child wellbeing. This review would translate the results of scholarly studies into a format that would be accessible to practitioners, taking care to weigh the methodological strengths and weaknesses of the available studies.
- The minutes of the January 23, 1998, meeting of the Gender and Justice Commission imply that a research project should gather data from children concerning their perceptions of the parenting plan process. This research strategy would most likely be extremely costly and difficult to implement.
- Data on the parenting plan should be solicited from divorcing and recently divorced persons, as well as from practitioners. It is essential to gather information about the divorce system from users, as well as from providers.
- It is unlikely that a single type of data will be adequate. Rather, a strategy that combines insights from a variety of data collection endeavors will be most likely to yield the pertinent information.
- Given the resources available, it is unlikely that a single survey would yield adequate data. This is because Commission and Committee members expressed a strong interest in gathering information about the process of divorce and parenting plan formation. An accurate depiction of processes on the basis of a survey would require multivariate analyses, which in turn would require a rather large survey.
- Coding data from samples of court records is also likely to be an unsatisfactory approach. While this approach would certainly yield information on the relative frequency of various outcomes, it would provide no insight into the processes giving rise to these outcomes. Further, a very large number of cases would have to be examined to support statistical analyses that could distinguish significant group differences and control important confounding factors.
- Given the interest in gathering process oriented data, strategies such as focus groups and structured interviews may offer the best prospects for data collection.
- Information about events and decisions during the divorce process should be collected as soon as possible after those events occurred. To minimize recall bias and protect the validity of the data, informants should not be asked to recall events that took place a considerable time in the past. For similar reasons, data should not be solicited from people in stress.
- Given the strong interest in reviewing the parenting plan expressed by state legislators, it is important that data collection strategies provide for the timely completion of the project, and offer at least preliminary results in time for the 1999 Legislative Session.
- The research project must conform to all applicable ethical standards, must deal appropriately with non-English speaking respondents, and must deal appropriately with issues of abuse.
- How well are parenting plans related to paternity issues handled in the present system?
- Are there identifiable groups that are especially poorly served?
- A range of economic issues including the expenses associated with divorce and child support issues.
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