Are Australian Judges Paying Attention to the Research on Babies’ Overnights with Dad?

May 31, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This piece from the always excellent Bettina Arndt raises the possibility that, in Australia at least, family courts are ignoring the exhortations of Jennifer McIntosh and giving fathers overnight time with their infants and toddlers (Mark Latham’s Outsiders, 5/15/17).

Here’s some rare good news about our Family Court system. Fewer dads with very young children are being denied overnight care of their infants and toddlers.

Arndt doesn’t cite hard data for her claim, but it’s a reasonable one. Why? Because the science on overnights with the non-custodial parent definitively debunk McIntosh’s frankly anti-father statements.

Jennifer McIntosh is a Victorian psychologist who was the lead author in a hugely influential study which concluded that any regular overnight care by fathers was damaging to infants and toddlers.

Readers of this blog know that McIntosh’s work is hogwash. It’s been taken apart by scholars like Warshak and Nielsen, a task that, in truth, wasn’t very hard to do. When a researcher represents a type of behavior as indicating children’s anxiety when it (a) has never been validated as indicating any such thing and (b) has been validated as a precursor to language acquisition, we know there’s an agenda at work that has little to do with scientific rigor or children’s well-being. In McIntosh’s case, it had to do with removing fathers from the care of their young children and little else.

Fortunately, serious researchers (and research) intervened.

Then came the game-changer. In 2014 Richard Warshak, a psychiatry professor who’s also an international authority on parental alienation, brought together 110 leading international experts who signed a consensus report which concluded the McIntosh position was deeply flawed, with the researchers shown to have cherry-picked and exaggerated their results to draw “unwarranted conclusions from the data.”

The consensus report provided solid research evidence that in normal circumstances children are likely to do better if they have regular overnight contact with both parents and that depriving young children of overnights with their fathers could compromise the quality of developing father-child relationships.

Warshak’s and other research effectively destroyed McIntosh’s efforts to the extent that even she backtracked. McIntosh not only changed her mind about overnights with Dad, but even claimed she’d never held the opinions she clearly had.

Of course she now claims she never promoted a ban on all overnights for pre-schoolers – yet there’s plenty of written documentation contradicting that statement.

In a discussion paper for the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH) in 2011, McIntosh wrote that: “Regardless of socio-economic background, parenting warmth or cooperation between parents, the shared overnight care of children less than four years of age had a significantly negative impact on the emotional and behavioural well-being of the child. Babies under two years who lived one or more overnights a week with both parents were significantly stressed.”

The same year she also wrote a guest editorial for The Family Court Review which included the following summary: “Repeated overnight stays away from the primary caregiver in the first year or two may strain the infant and disrupt formation of secure attachment with both parents. Overnight stays away from the primary caregiver in early infancy are generally best avoided unless of benefit to the primary caregiver.”

Hopefully such dangerous nonsense is no longer party line in our Family Court system.

Hopefully indeed. What enterprising journalists/lawyers/activists might do in the Land Down Under is to demand the materials used to educate family court judges about custody, parenting time and children’s well-being. When that was done in Nebraska, the results were illuminating. One presenter to Nebraska judges directly channeled McIntosh, opposing overnights with the non-custodial parent all the way up to the child’s sixth birthday.

The same person told all and sundry that children do better when they have a meaningful relationship with Dad, but never explained how that “meaningful relationship” was supposed to come about with contact limited to a few daytime hours a few days per week. Arndt talked with fathers who were denied overnights and, sure enough, forming such a relationship under those circumstances proved next to impossible.

I wrote about all this at the time – my article in The Age finally appeared after numerous legal threats from McIntosh. After publication I heard from fathers all over Australia who’d been McIntoshed and often struggled to establish meaningful relationships with their children after years of virtually being excluded from their lives.

I talked to one man, a Sydney academic who’d been the principal carer for their infant for much of the first year after marital separation due to his wife’s work commitments. Then his ex-mother-in-law arrived in Australia and suddenly he found himself in court fighting for any overnight care. He was McIntoshed and denied any overnights for years of his young child’s life.

So in fact, to be denied overnight contact is to marginalize a father in his child’s life to the extent that those all-important “meaningful relationships” may never be established.

Arndt makes a vital point about overnights I’d not seen before, but is both true and obvious.

The stories were just extraordinary and the whole situation quite farcical because everyone knew many of these mothers were allowing all sorts of people to care for their children overnight – from babysitters, to relatives or even highly unsuitable boyfriends. The only person being denied this role was the father.

Of course. The mental image of Mom solely caring for little Andy or Jenny night after night isn’t real. In fact, she allows all sorts of people to handle overnight care. The only one who’s out of that loop is Dad.

Are fathers getting overnight time with their infants and toddlers? Anecdotally, yes.

Judges and lawyers now tell me that reasonable dads usually are being given some overnight care even with infants, and there are signs that the number of nights now tends to increase more rapidly.

Arndt wants to hear from Australian fathers about their experiences with family courts regarding overnights with their very young children.

So please send me your comments and stories ( Richard Warshak is soon to publish a follow-up to his consensus report and it would be nice to have news from the coalface in Australia to add to the reporting when that comes out.

By all means, let her know.




National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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