Australian Lawyers Still Claim Overnights for Dads May Be Detrimental to Kids

April 1, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National

Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Vampires never die. Apparently the same can be said of the notion that there is a “controversy” among social scientists about parenting time for the very young, i.e. usually children under four (although ages three and five are sometimes used). Of course the only such controversy exists in the minds of those who are dogmatically opposed to children having much contact with their fathers. Indeed, the chief warrior among that crowd, Jennifer McIntosh, last year essentially threw in the towel admitting that…

The attachment literature added support to the father involvement literature on this very point. Researchers from both theoretical leanings established through their studies what children have always demonstrated clinically: the early years matter and young children desire and benefit from warm and positive involvement with both of the people who gave birth to and are invested in their well-being.

McIntosh, whose academic credentials are astonishingly thin (she’s nothing more than an adjunct professor at Australia’s Latrobe University), long maintained that children under three should never, or almost never have overnight visits with their non-primary parent which naturally meant ‘Dad.’ But every scrap of her work was seriously undermined by more scrupulous scientists who pointed out that (a) it contradicted the other, better science, (b) her claims weren’t supported by her own research, (c) some of her claims were actually contradicted by her own data, (d) her sample sizes were absurdly small and (e) her measurements of child well-being were either unverified or in fact indicated the opposite of what she claimed.

Then the hammer came down. That was in the form of Prof. Richard Warshak’s analysis of all the existing literature on overnights with both parents. Precisely in order to once and for all drive a stake through the heart of McIntosh’s claims, Warshak sought the support of social scientists around the world and a whopping 110 of them signed onto his interpretation of the state of our knowledge about overnights with both parents.

The results were telling; far from impairing children, overnight visits with both parents tend to have beneficial effects. That’s likely because children form attachments with both parents from the earliest weeks of their lives. Equally important, for children, there is no hierarchy of parenting. Neither parent is more important than the other, a fact that holds true irrespective of who does the majority of the hands-on care. Unlike McIntosh and her colleagues, children don’t discriminate.

But despite Prof. Warshak’s best efforts and despite the state of the science on children’s welfare regarding parental contact in infancy, the idea that children should be prohibited from seeing their fathers overnight lives on, particularly in the minds of lawyers who benefit from parental conflict. According to our best understanding of the issue, this article is almost completely wrong from start to finish (Mondag, 3/25/15). It’s written by an Australian law firm. Interestingly, although it deals with a question on which there is much directly applicable social science, the article cites none. None.

Children of this age group are especially vulnerable to disturbance in the development of their attachments to their primary carers.

Notice that, according to the article that here cites another lawyer, the only attachment whose disturbance upsets children is that with their “primary carers,” which all understand to mean “mothers.” That is exactly wrong. Again, as Warshak and his 110 colleagues pointed out, children attach to both parents and there is no parental hierarchy. Disturb either of those attachments and you risk damaging the child’s emotional/psychological development. And yet that is precisely what McIntosh, et al argued for, at least until last year when they figuratively said “never mind.”

We encourage our clients to think laterally about what arrangements might work best for their infant child, having regard to what we know about the research in this area, how the court applies this research, and of course the application of family law principles to the issue.

That would be a good idea if their lawyers had some idea of what the social science demonstrates on that question. But, if the article is any indication, they don’t. My advice would be to get better lawyers or read Warshak, et al’s paper and act accordingly.

Since the amendments in 2006 to Part VII of the Family Law Act 1975 in relation to shared parental responsibility there seems to be a move towards arguing for equal time or substantial and significant time even with infant children. That is, there seems to be a move towards fathers’ seeking more time with children at an earlier age.

The court has expressed some concern that parents are increasingly fighting for their infant child to spend more time with them, seemingly on the basis that unless they do, it may be harder to achieve more time later.

Having attempted to establish in the mind of its readers that overnights with the non-primary caregiver (Dad) are per se suspect, the writer moves on to excoriate dads for trying to get more time with their kids. The theory being, I suppose, that the standard visitation order providing for 14% – 20% of the time to be spent with Dad, should be enough. Notice that the only reason given for fathers seeking more time is that, if they don’t, “it may be harder to achieve more time later.” Selfish dads.

The idea that fathers love and want to be with their kids doesn’t enter the picture. Neither does the idea of masses of social science demonstrating that children need meaningful time with both parents. No, fathers wanting more time with their kids is all about grasping fathers and nothing else.

Amazingly, the article adopts the attitude that what courts have been for decades is simply right on its face. Any deviation from every other weekend visitation by fathers is automatically suspect, not to say anathema. This utter unwillingness to acknowledge what we now know to be in children’s best interests — meaningful time with both parents — is beyond the pale, but, from family lawyers, all too predictable.

The classic example of exactly that comes here:

Some experts are of the view that infants up to the age of 18 months should not spend overnight time with the other parent, the concern being so as to not compromise the infant’s attachment with the primary carer. Some experts are of the view that the ban on overnight time with the non-primary carer should even extend to up to 4 years. Other experts are of the view that infant children form multiple attachments which should be encouraged by including overnight time with each parent, even during infancy.

What’s next “some experts are of the view that the world is flat?” The iteration “some experts say A, while others say B” is simple nonsense. Yes, a handful of experts who mostly now agree that they’ve been wrong all along have said A. But the overwhelming body of responsible science says B and therefore B must, by everything that is sane and just, be the law of the land.

But family lawyers, like the ones who wrote this scurrilous screed, have long opposed anything that smacks of equal parenting. They know from long experience that it’s the status quo that promotes conflict between parents.

After all, when parents embark on divorce knowing full well that one will end up the winner and the other the loser, why would they not fight. Who wants to be the loser? And particularly who wants to be the loser when the stakes are so high? What parent wants to simply bid adieu to the children he so passionately loves and toward whom he’s bent his every effort for so long. Of course parents fight because Dad doesn’t want to be consigned to an occasional visitor in his child’s life whose only acknowledged value is the money he pays to Mom.

Parental alienation? PA feeds off the current system like bacteria in a petri dish. As psychologist Linda Gottlieb-Kase has so pointedly said, PA is an opportunistic phenomenon and family courts daily provide the opportunity. In order for one parent to alienate the child from the other parent, he/she needs the time in which to do so. And he/she needs the other parent to have too little time to counteract the alienation. A parenting plan under which a child sees its father only two days out of 14 is just the opportunity an alienating parent needs.

Family lawyers see this every day. They know that unequal custody breeds resentment and conflict. And resentment and conflict breed fees. Look at the houses those lawyers live in, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear and know that much of it was bought with the tears of parents shoved aside and the anguish of children who saw a loved parent disappear into the insatiable maw of a family court.

Lawyers take all this straight to the bank. That is why they are the ones at the head of the line to testify in opposition to shared parenting bills. To date, no organization of family lawyers has ever supported an equal parenting bill and many, many have opposed them.

The linked-to article would disgrace a more scrupulous writer. But, as we’ve come to expect, family attorneys all too often think of their boat payments before they think of children. That’s seldom been clearer than in this article.


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