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Break-up in ethnic minority families - the children’s view


How does divorce affect the children, when ethnic minority families break up? Both in Denmark, and in the rest of Europe, little is known about this question. A new SFI research project, carried out in cooperation with the private humanitarian organization “Children’s Welfare”, sheds more light on the topic.

While for decades divorce has been rather common among the majority of Danish couples (about 40% of all marriages end in divorce), little is known about divorce among ethnic minority couples, and next to nothing is known about how divorce affects children in these families. This lack of knowledge became apparent to the humanitarian organization “Children’s Welfare”, due to the many calls they received from professionals such as school teachers and early childhood educators who had encountered children that were troubled by their parents’ divorce. The teachers felt unsure about how they could best help these children and turned to Children’s Welfare for advice. To ensure that future help aimed at these children is based on a sound footing, SFI has now entered into a research project, funded by the Egmont Foundation, which investigates family break-up patterns among ethnic minority families, how break-up affects the children involved, and what Danish professionals can do to improve the support offered to these children.

The project will run from spring 2013 to 2014, and initial observations already indicate that children from ethnic minority families whose parents divorce may be more affected by their parents’ divorce than their majority peers are. Divorce is often more stigmatizing among ethnic minority families than among majority families. As a consequence of this, ethnic couples tend to stay together longer, and marriages are often characterized by an acrimonious atmosphere before the couple finally decides to separate. Interviews with both professionals and male and female divorcees indicate a history of e.g. violence, alcohol abuse and mental instability among a considerable number of the ethnic minority couples that divorce. Furthermore, especially female divorcees may be socially stigmatized, and this adds to the hardships felt by the children involved. Moreover, the dislocation associated with migration may also shape the course of post-divorce life, as children may lose contact to one parent who may (be forced to) leave Denmark. Some children are subsequently left in a vulnerable one-adult household, where, for example, a divorced migrant mother has a limited command of Danish, thus shifting considerable responsibility for e.g. reading letters or handling electronic banking onto the oldest child. In some families, it also seems that children become overly involved in animosities between the parents, and may, for example, be prevented from seeing one of their parents and his or her kin after the divorce.

In order to illuminate the situation of such ethnic minority children in Denmark, the project combines several methods. The most important data source is interviews with older children from divorced families, and the parent they live with, most commonly the mother. Interviews are also carried out with a number of divorced fathers, in order to include their perspective on family break-up. Second, focus group interviews with professionals such as ethnic consultants, visiting nurses, and administrative officers, who make divorce settlements in Denmark, add to the breadth of knowledge about such divorces. Third, data from the two surveys “Children and youth in Denmark” and “The Longitudinal Survey of Ethnic Minority Children” will – in combination with register data – give quantitative knowledge regarding all ethnic minority children in Denmark who experience family break-up. This data is expected to reveal e.g. differences in the rate of break-up between different ethnic minority groups, and shed light on the subsequent outcomes for the children involved.

Research staff at SFI include senior researcher Mai Heide Ottosen (head of the project), senior researcher Anika Liversage, and PhD Rikke Fuglsang. The project will result in both a report (in Danish), one or more research articles (in English), and information material for both professionals and parents with an ethnic minority background, which will be provided in several languages.

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