By Bettina Arndt, published in The Age, Melbourne
              
 Barriers constraining divorced fathers having their young children stay with them overnight may be lifted, with key family law organisations revising policies blocking overnight care of infants and toddlers.
 
The rethink follows the publication of an academic paper endorsed by 110 leading international experts challenging the policies. The paper is highly critical of a key 2010 study that found any regular overnight care by fathers was damaging to infants and toddlers.
 
The paper, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A consensus report, by Professor Richard Warshak was published in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychology, Public Policy and Law, in February.
 
It says that the 2010 study, led by Melbourne child psychologist Dr Jennifer McIntosh, was inappropriately used to suggest that any regular overnight care by fathers was damaging to infants and toddlers. ‘‘This study provides no reliable basis to support custody policy, recommendations or decisions,’’ the Warshak paper found.
 
The experts said the findings of Dr McIntosh’s study should not have been used as a platform for developing public policy in this area. Dr McIntosh has told Fairfax Media she pointed out in her research paper that her findings should not have been used for making policy.
 
Professor Warshak was an ‘‘impassioned advocate’’ seeking to discredit her to further his own political agendas, Dr McIntosh said. She said her work had been ‘‘interpreted in a particular way by fathers’ rights groups for some time’’, and that ‘‘the conclusions in her research were only ever gender neutral, and cautionary only as to frequency of overnight care of infants in particular circumstances’’.
 
McIntosh’s lawyer said: ‘‘Unfortunately, she cannot control how these conclusions are extrapolated by third parties and then attributed to her. However, it is important to confirm that she is not the source of such extrapolations.’’
 
Some key organisations, such as the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health are revising their policies regarding overnight care of infants, as are many of the Family Relationship Centres (FRCs) offering the compulsory mediation required prior to Family Court proceedings.
 
‘‘Given the new positions papers that have recently been published we will be reviewing the literature that we give to parents to help them make the best decisions they can for their children,’’ said Matt Stubbs, the acting clinical services director of Interrelate family centres.
 
One of the experts who endorsed the consensus paper, foundation director of the Australian Institute of Studies, Don Edgar, said he was ‘‘disturbed’’  that research findings were  used against fathers’ access to, and visiting rights with, young children.
 
‘‘Those who endorsed Warshak’s careful review paper are not ideologists for men; they simply object to the misinterpretation of data and its misuse in family law policy,’’ he said. ‘‘Children need consistent contact to form bonds with fathers and other carers, not just mothers, and lack of early contact denies children both the right to dual parenting and to ongoing child support from their fathers.’’
 
The expert paper concluded infants commonly develop attachment relationships with more than one caregiver and that in normal circumstances children are likely to do better if they have some overnight contact with both parents.
 
It said depriving young children the opportunity to stay overnight with their fathers could compromise the development of father-child relationships.
 
McIntosh has recently co-authored a two-part paper soon to be published in the Family Court Review – ‘‘Parental separation and overnight care of young children: Consensus through Theoretical and Empirical Integration’’ – which examines the current research evidence and acknowledges that ‘‘cautions against any overnight care during the first three years have not been supported’’.
 
There are signs the new consensus paper could affect current policies. Diana Bryant, the Chief Justice of the Family Court, said she expected her court’s personnel, including judges, family consultants and experts to be familiar with current research, including recent developments regarding overnight care.
 
Relationships Australia, which runs most of the FRCs issued this statement: ‘‘If there has been a trend towards limiting shared parenting and overnight contact with young children and fathers in recent years, it has not been a move advocated by Relationships Australia. We have noted an increase in shared parenting in recent years and consider this a positive outcome for both children and parents.’’
 
Federal Attorney-General Senator George Brandis said: ‘‘it is very important key public institutions have regard to evidence-based advice,’’ while noting the government cannot direct policy influencing mediation in FRCs nor decisions made by the courts.
 
While there is nothing in the Family Law Act concerning overnight care of pre-schoolers, the Coalition has previously indicated it would examine changes made by the Labor government to Howard government reforms promoting shared parental care.
 
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/national/about-us/movement-on-fathers-overnight-access-20140428-zr0z2.html
 
Read the 2nd article, Empty Days and Lonely Nights here

  http://mensrights.com.au/hot-topics/empty-days-lonely-nights/    

  • admin says:

    Good to see positive comments published in support of Bettina Arndt’s article.
    http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-age-letters/why-should-some-babies-be-worth-more-20140501-37l2d.html

    Enable strong bonds
    Thank you, Bettina Arndt, for highlighting the research evidence showing young children can form secure bonds with more than one ”primary carer” (”Empty days, lonely nights,” 28/4). Too many men have been shut out of their children’s lives. As a father of two young children, I have no doubt that my children have just as strong bonds with me as they do with their mother.
    Greg Andresen, Men’s Health Australia, Bondi Junction, NSW

    Importance of fathers
    As one of the ”gang of 110 (scientists)”, I applaud the courage of Bettina Arndt in facing squarely the ideology of the ”divorce industry” that profits from the bare bones of the children and families after divorce. Sound family policy based on sound science always is in the best interests of the child, parents, and society. Sound research has shown that the single-mother family form yields the worst developmental outcomes for children of all family forms. But children who have a loving and involved father in their lives benefit because father involvement helps to attenuate the negative developmental outcomes so common in today’s youth.
    Gordon Finley, professor of psychology emeritus, Florida International University, US

    Approach with caution
    It has been unfortunate that concern about ”shared care” (and one or two nights a week is hardly shared care) drawn from Jennifer McIntosh’s research became conflated into a policy stance (here and overseas) that claimed even one night a week was harmful to children’s welfare and brain development and denied caring parents access to their children. We will hopefully see lawyers and counsellors taking a more nuanced approach to overnight stays by young children. Children’s best interests matter most, not parental ”rights” or academic hurt. The Warshak paper is not a ”petition” (Letters, 1/5), nor is it part of a ”gender war”; it is a careful review of the research evidence and a call for caution in policy decision-making to ensure that where there is no valid reason to deny access to men (such as conflict, violence or poor parenting skills), children will benefit from forming strong attachments to both parents. Ongoing research will doubtless further clarify what arrangements work best for children. In the meantime, there is no research basis to deny caring parents overnight access to their young children.
    Don Edgar, foundation director, Australian Institute of Family Studies

  • admin says:

    Here’s the negative comments including Jennifer McIntosh’s reply.
    http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-age-letters/rights-of-the-children-come-before-needs-of-parents-20140430-37hvy.html

    Rights of the children come before needs of parents
    May 1, 2014
    Letters

    Bettina Arndt’s one-sided piece on the shared care of infants of separated parents assumes that mothers are always the primary care givers of their infant children (”Empty days, lonely nights”, 29/4). Jennifer McIntosh’s research found that children do best when they are not shunted between parents in infancy. This may not be welcome news to mothers or fathers for whom it might well be more convenient to share overnight care. Under the Family Law Act, however, it is children, not parents, who have rights. Parents have responsibilities. It is the responsibility of parents to ensure they act in the best interests of their children, not of themselves. Arndt predictably misquotes Jennifer McIntosh, who never recommended children not stay overnight with fathers, but rather, in the interests of developing secure attachment, have continuity of care with whichever parent has acted as the primary care giver since birth. Non-residential parents who miss having their infant children overnight can rest assured in the knowledge that this arrangement may change as the child matures. In the meantime, regular visitation with the non-residential parent can ensure a close relationship is maintained.

    Vivian Gerrand, St Kilda

    Gender politics must not get in the way

    My extensive clinical and academic work in family law and early childhood development, and my research with Bruce Smyth and Margaret Kelaher, are evidence-based and consistent: our findings have never said ”never” to overnight care of young children in divorce, nor anything about children needing mothers more than fathers. Infants need consistency of care, and the ongoing, warm involvement of both parents. Our research cautions against high-frequency, shared overnight care for young infants. This is the consensus with other studies on this question. Bettina Arndt relies on the petition of US psychologist Richard Warshak to argue otherwise, even though Dr Warshak himself reports that his hand-picked signatories ”may not agree with every detail” of what they signed up to. While there are opinions to the contrary, and the circumstances of individual cases differ, there is no developmental evidence to support claims that equal or near-equal overnight care is the optimal starting point for co-parenting infants after separation. That is the science we have to date. The rights and needs of children must not be allowed to give way to gender politics.

    Jennifer McIntosh, school of public health and human biosciences, La Trobe University

    Missing the message

    In 2010, Jennifer McIntosh, Margaret Kelaher and I conducted a study of developmental outcomes for young children in different post-divorce parenting arrangements. This study has attracted considerable attention, most recently by Bettina Arndt. She suggests that key family law organisations are revising policies blocking overnight care of infants and toddlers; implies our study influenced these policies; and draws heavily on a recent ”expert paper” by Richard Warshak, ”endorsed by 110 leading international experts challenging the policies”. The idea that our study has single-handedly shaped policy, unduly influenced judicial discretion, and changed the direction of mediation in Australia is far-fetched. The use of a consensus review as evidence is also problematic. A petition is not science. Would a report with 111 signatures trump Dr Warshak’s report with 110 signatories? Our study simply makes the somewhat intuitive point that children of different ages have different developmental needs, and that special care is required where shared time is considered for infants and toddlers. The real consensus is that we need better data. Pity Arndt missed the ”glass-half-full” message: that once children turn four, they can cope with a variety of arrangements.

    Bruce Smyth, ARC Future Fellow, ANU

    One size won’t fit all

    Reading Bettina Arndt’s crusade for fathers made me want to scream. Her comments on what we mediators advise our clients about overnight stays for young children are just wrong. Since the 2006 family law reforms, it can be difficult to shift parents from thinking about their rights (often 50-50), to support thinking that is child-focused and able to consider what will work for the child, rather than the parent.

    Arndt’s article rejects the renowned work of Jennifer McIntosh to reduce her complex, nuanced empirical work into one that is black or white. For Arndt, you’re either with us, or against us – overnights or ”lonely nights”. This reduction is irresponsible; it simplifies decisions about arrangements for children to one that is about supporting or denying fathers. To do this when so recently women and children have been murdered through family violence reveals just how naive Arndt can be.

    Family law professionals increasingly assist families experiencing complex issues including family violence, substance misuse and mental health. Decisions should not be based only on fathers’ needs, but on the emotional wellbeing and physical safety of all family members. For children, there has never been a one-size-fits-all, and nor should there be.

    Allie Bailey, Brunswick West

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