General Concepts Regarding Relocation of Children

Robert J. Loveland, Ph.D.

What follows is an explanation that I place in my court reports when the custody and parenting plan evaluation has also involved an analysis of a proposal by one parent to relocate with the children. In Oregon, the Court must be notified if a parent intends to move a child more than 60 miles from the child’s current residence. If the other parent fails to object, the Court does not need to do anything. However, if the other parent objects, the Court must make a decision to allow or disallow the proposed relocation. These are often very painful cases for all evaluation participants, for the attorneys, and for the Court.

Several years ago, as requests for relocation evaluations were rapidly increasing, I made an attempt to blend what was accepted about relocation in the mental health field with Oregon case law, and I have since employed a Four-Factor Family System Analysis for Relocation Cases (please see an additional article with this title). While recognizing that there is no mathematical or formulaic way to arrive at an appropriate recommendation, my four-factor system is an attempt to apply some clinical logic to an extremely difficult decision. The following explanation of the analytical system is provided for the benefit of the involved parents as they try to deal with a relocation proposal.

Relocation Issues

Before addressing the issues related to the proposed relocation for the children involved in this evaluation, allow me to share some general concepts that are put in all my relocation reports because these concepts apply to nearly all proposed relocations. First of all, for the benefit of these parents, the Court is not allowed to consider the proposed relocation as an indicator under the custody statute that the parent with the desire to relocate is somehow demonstrating a lack of willingness or ability to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the other parent and the child. The relocation must be considered as a separate issue from custody. Secondly, case law suggests that a proposed relocation must be addressed by the Court as a “weighing of harm” between the harm associated with the potential move versus the harm of removing the child from the custodial parent who is usually the parent that wants to move. However, since most custodial parents indicate that they will not move without the child, the final decision seems to circle back to the same standard that is employed to make the initial custody decision, that is, the best interest and welfare of the child. Most relocation decisions seem to involve an analysis of harm and risk as well as issues related to the best interest standard.

The psychological and family issues involved in the relocation of children or adolescents are always extremely complex. Each proposed relocation must be considered to be unique, and must be evaluated within the context of a particular family system and the particular circumstances of the relocation. I do not believe that any court has recognized a single standard upon which a move should be allowed nor a single standard upon which a move should be disallowed. From a psychologist’s point of view, family systems are so varied and relocation circumstances are so unique that some cases result in a very strong recommendation for relocation and other cases result in just the opposite. The decision format that is suggested below involves a close look at four factors that are relevant to all relocations. This format has proved helpful to the Court in addressing this very complicated issue.

The psychological analysis of a proposed relocation always begins with a careful look at the first factor, which could be called a “continuum of necessity.” All relocations can be placed on a continuum, where on one extreme are relocations that are required and necessary for compelling reasons, and on the other extreme that are optional, purely convenient, or simply desirable. Examples of optional, convenient or simply desirable relocations are numerous and easy to imagine. Relocations that are required and necessary for compelling reasons often involve a primary parent who does not want to move, but there is no choice due to military, corporate, or pressing family matters. Were a parent’s proposed relocation of the children required and necessary for compelling reasons (however that might be defined legally and psychologically), a recommendation to allow the relocation might be extremely strong. The harm to the children in so doing, along with issues related to mitigating factors, would still need to be assessed, but a strong custodial parent with a required or necessary move may need to do the best they can with a forced relocation. When a parent’s proposed relocation is of an optional, convenient, or simply desirable nature, additional weight must be applied to the impact of potential harm to the children and the existence of any mitigating factors. With rare exceptions, proposed relocations that are impulsive or ill-advised, unusually arbitrary, or completely unnecessary are most likely going to be disallowed by the Court if the non-moving parent objects, particularly if the relocation involves young children.

Regardless of where a proposed relocation might fall on the continuum of necessity, risk or harm to the children is the second factor in the analysis that must be addressed in making a recommendation to the Court regarding a proposed relocation. At a general level, the potential harm to the children if the Court allows a relocation would be significant from a psychologist’s point of view, unless the other parent also chooses to follow the children and relocate. It is well accepted within the psychological field, and recent studies seem to demonstrate, that children separated from one parent or the other (ordinarily the father), are at increased risk of developing a range of social pathologies, including school-related difficulties, sexual and drug experimentation, delinquent behavior, and a variety of emotional problems. As is the case with most social research, a direct cause and effect relationship is difficult to prove, but there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that it is in the children’s best interest to have both parents live in sufficiently close proximity to have very regular contact with both parents. (This is actually a state policy in Oregon). While the social research is helpful in making risk predictions for large groups of children, it is not so helpful in assessing potential harm for particular children within particular family circumstances. That assessment comes from this type of family system evaluation.

The third factor that must be evaluated in a proposed relocation involves the possible existence of significant mitigating factors to assist the children with the harm and risk that are almost always present when relocations are allowed. There are a wide variety of potential mitigating factors, some that might apply to any family and some that are likely unique to the family being evaluated. Some factors are both mitigating and harmful. For example, a very young child will easily adjust to the logistics of a long-distance move, which is mitigating, but will lose significant quality in the bond and attachment to the parent left behind, which is harmful. Mitigating factors are fairly easy to identify during the course of a family system evaluation.

Finally, once the necessity of the move is assessed, the risk and harm factors identified, and the mitigating factors properly considered and weighed, the fourth factor involves looking at all of the remaining family system data that makes any family so unique. These characteristics need to be blended with the first three factors to yield a logical recommendation to the Court.

(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).