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.
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Read the 2nd article, Empty Days and Lonely Nights here