Four-Factor Family System Analysis for Relocation Cases

Robert J. Loveland, Ph.D.

(What follows are the general notes that I employ when teaching a workshop on relocation issues).

General Relocation Issues

Resolving a custody issue is sufficiently complex in and of itself. Adding a proposed relocation of a child makes for an even more difficult case for the Court and for everyone involved.

Relocation cases involve a wide variety of disputed legal and psychological factors. One psychological issue that is not in dispute is a common belief among psychologists that each relocation must be evaluated within that particular family system, recognizing that each family system is a unique entity. Within that context, the psychological field recognizes that there are some relocations that should be allowed by the Court, and some that should be disallowed.

Since it is unlikely that a single or narrow standard for allowing or disallowing moves will ever be accepted in Court, a family system analysis should take place in disputed cases.

Almost all relocation evaluation cases seem to involve one of two scenarios. The first scenario is a joint legal custodian seeking to end joint custody and to achieve sole custody with the hope of then relocating with the child. The second scenario involves a parent who already has sole custody and that parent would like to move with the children (this is the mother 75% of the time).

The Four-Factor Family System Analysis for Relocation Cases

This system is based on a logical blending of Oregon case law with what is generally accepted within the mental health field as relevant concepts related to the relocation of children, usually leaving one parent behind.

Factor #1: Placing the Move on the “Continuum of Necessity:”

Moves that are required and necessary for compelling reasons fall at one end of the continuum.

Moves that are optional, purely convenient, or simply desirable are at the other end.

Moves can fall most anywhere in between, making the other three factors even more important in the analysis.

Placing the proposed move on the continuum of necessity serves as a means to weight the other factors at a logical rather than mathematical level.

Factor #2: Assessing Harm to the Child(ren):

With rare exceptions, any long distance separation of a child from his or her parent will harm that child and the parent/child relationship to some extent. Consequently, an analysis of most relocation cases begins with an assumption of harm.

Assessing harm to the child involves evaluation of the family history (including any abuse or pathology), the quality of the bond and attachment with both parents, age factors, the sex of the child, personality factors for both child and parents, issues within the extended family, developmental issues with the child, and school/community connections. (Almost all of this information becomes available during normal custody and parenting plan evaluation procedures).

Factor #3: Identifying the Existence of Any Mitigating Factors That Might Buffer the Child from Harm:

There are any number of positive mitigating factors that can lessen the potential harm to the child or to the parent/child relationship. These factors can involve certain family characteristics, financial issues, travel convenience, social support issues, characteristics related to the child, and use of available media and technology.

There are also mitigating factors related to the avoidance of negative issues, such as the various forms of abuse, including alcohol and substance abuse.

Sometimes a harm factor can also be a mitigating factor. For example, moving a two-year-old child away from one parent certainly involves potential harm, but at the same time two-year-old children can easily weather moves because their entire support system is within the small world of their immediate family system. In other words, with the major exception of one parent, their whole world moves with them, as opposed to older children who must leave behind an established support system, their school life, and a familiar lifestyle.

Factor #4: Balancing and Prioritizing the Unique Family System Circumstances:

As all family system data is reviewed, the best interests and welfare of the child should remain the top priority, even in relocation cases.

At the “required and necessary for compelling reasons” end of the continuum, the impact of removing the child from the relocating custodial parent must additionally be addressed if the move of the child were to be disallowed. At the “optional, purely convenient, or simply desirable” end of the continuum, the relocating, custodial parent will invariably state that he/she will not move without the child, so removal of the child from the custodial parent becomes a moot point.

Balancing and prioritizing the data typically involves reviewing the advantages and disadvantages to the child(ren), followed by the advantages and disadvantages to the non-relocating parent (who typically has the most to lose), followed by the same for the relocating parent (who typically has the most to gain).

A proper analysis should lead to a clear and defensible recommendation to the Court to either allow the child(ren) to move or to disallow the move.

To Allow or Disallow - Two Cases to Consider

In order to better understand how this analytical system might work in real life, you might want to consider two fictional relocation requests.

Relocation #1: Susie is the 34 -year-old mother of 4-year-old Daniel. In divorcing her second husband, John, two years ago, she stipulated to joint legal custody with nearly shared equal placement in both parental homes. Neither parent has any other children. Susie and John take good care of Daniel, are mostly on the same page regarding his care and schedule, and their only major dispute has involved Susie’s exposing Daniel to a series of boyfriends. John believes this is inappropriate. John is extremely close to Daniel, and Susie discounts his concerns as mere jealousy or an attempt to control her. To his complete surprise, John is served papers indicating that Susie wants to terminate joint legal custody because “it is not working.” She also serves him with her intent to seek sole custody and to move with Daniel to Virginia. Susie has met a sailor on-line in her singles chat room, and he is stationed in Virginia Beach. She has been to see him two times, once with Daniel. She wants to move to Virginia Beach to pursue this new relationship and “to see what might develop.” Shortly after filing her petition, Susie quits her professional position of 10 years, puts her house up for sale, and begins job-hunting in Virginia, claiming that both the job and housing markets in Virginia are more lucrative than here in Oregon. John also files for sole custody in an attempt to block Daniel’s proposed move to Virginia. During the subsequent custody evaluation, Susie tells the evaluator that she will not move without Daniel. (In this particular case, it is very likely that the recommendation to the Court would be to disallow Daniel’s move).

Relocation #2: Carla is the 40-year-old mother of 12-year-old Dustin and 11-year-old Sarah. She and her former husband, Bob, delayed having children after they were married in their early 20’s so that both could pursue their respective careers, his as a physician and hers as a design engineer for a large computer design corporation. Bob and Carla divorced when the children were just toddlers. Carla was awarded sole legal custody following a custody evaluation, the results of which implied that Bob’s bid for custody was largely motivated by an attempt to avoid paying child support. Bob has since remarried two times, and is currently involved in a nasty divorce from his former office manager, who petitioned for divorce following an incident of domestic violence that occurred while Bob was drunk. Bob has one child from his second marriage and two from his third. Carla never remarried following her divorce from Bob. Between moving up the corporate ladder at her place of employment and raising Dustin and Sarah, there has been no time to pursue other relationships. Dustin and Sarah are doing well in all areas. They are healthy, at the top of their classes at school, and both are heavily involved in athletics. Whereas Bob does pay his court-ordered child support, mostly on time, he rarely sees the children. In the past year, he has seen them for only three weekends, one ending early because he forgot that he was on-call and he had to deal with an emergency at the hospital. After years of dealing with the corporate “glass ceiling,” Carla is finally offered a director of operations position by her corporate boss, provided that she is willing to relocate to a new facility in Denver. The promotion involves an increase in salary from $80,000 per year to $175,000, along with potentially lucrative stock options. The senior VP who helped her secure the promotion warns her that not taking the position will forever end her promotion possibilities. Carla provides proper notice to the Court regarding her intended move to Denver. Bob files for sole custody to block the move. During the subsequent custody evaluation, Carla tells the evaluator that she would sacrifice her future at her place of employment rather than move without Dustin and Sarah. (In this particular case, the recommendation to the Court would very likely be that the relocation should be allowed).

(Dr. Loveland’s relocation analysis system was reviewed as part of a case that was heard by the Oregon Court of Appeals. Please see Federov and Federov for a complete description of the Court’s findings).

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