The last redoubt of the anti-father crowd is being breached. Read about it here (Sydney Morning Herald, 4/28/14).
For decades, the data on children’s need for fathers have been building up. Over 20 years ago, prominent family sociologist David Popenoe was able to say that some 30 years of social science information demonstrated that children from all walks of life do better with two parents than with one. And the same holds true for children when their parents separate or divorce; they still do better with both of them actively involved in their lives.
Those opposed to children maintaining meaningful relationships with their fathers post-divorce have for years been fighting a rear-guard action. First they claimed that fathers don’t really care about their kids, so what’s the problem with separating the two? That fit nicely with their fictional narrative of gender relations, but science overwhelmed it. It turned out that fathers not only care deeply about their children, but find their identities in the paternal role. When that role is destroyed by a divorce court, fathers go through an emotional hell that all too often results in their suicide.
Next the anti-dad crowd played the domestic violence card, but that too came a cropper after an initial period of success. Again the theory was agreeable to their narrative of how they believed things should be, but again that narrative was contradicted by how things are. Hundreds of studies over 40 years show men and women to commit domestic violence equally with women being more likely than men to initiate aggression.
So they moved on to child abuse. After all, no person who abuses children should have custody of them. The anti-father forces desperately want us to believe that men are violent in any situation in which a woman or child is present, so again, their narrative made perfect sense. If your goal is to separate fathers from children, that’s as good a way as any. But that too failed. Mothers, it seems, are far more likely to commit child abuse or neglect than fathers.
So it was on to child sexual abuse, and there they finally found something not completely at odds with scientific fact. It’s true that, when a child is sexually abused, it’s more likely that its father did the deed than its mother. The trouble though was that child sexual abuse is so rare, it didn’t really offer much of a comprehensive defense to the threat of fathers being able to see their kids.
Then there was the possibility that high-conflict parents could be used as an out. Maybe the anti-father forces could concede that, in ideal couples, equal parenting works, but that it just wasn’t feasible when the former spouses don’t get along. That looked promising. After all, how many parents are all sweetness and light when they’re getting divorced? It seemed that could be sufficient to cut fathers out of children’s lives. Just demonstrate conflict (or even initiate it) and – presto! – no more Dad. But alas, it was not to be. Equal parenting has been demonstrated to ameliorate conflict between parents, particularly when hand-offs of children are infrequent.
What to do? The science on parents and child well-being has been altogether uncooperative with those who would deny children their fathers. At this point, the anti-dad crowd has next to nothing with which to support their anti-father bias.
That’s where Jennifer McIntosh comes in. She’s the Australian researcher who, in recent years has come up with some data (or actually some claims about her data) that anti-father folks hoped might give new life to their dying cause. McIntosh studied how very young children fared when they had overnight stays with their dads versus those who were with their mothers full-time.
Those opposed to fathers’ rights hoped that, if they could keep children from having overnights with their dads, that fait accompli could be carried over into sole maternal custody when the child grew older. It was a frail reed, but it’s what they had.
But McIntosh’s data never supported her claims for it – that children with overnights with Daddy were more irritable and fretful than those who spent all their nights with Mommy. Of course anti-father campaigners were happy to ignore what the data actually said, and McIntosh was in no hurry to disabuse them of their wrong conclusions.
Now, from the very first, scrupulous researchers in Australia, like Patrick Parkinson, and elsewhere debunked McIntosh’s claims, but that didn’t stop her and her comrades in arms from trying to convince policy-makers to adopt what amounts to a return of the Tender Years Doctrine in the Land Down Under. And for a time, politicians, judges and the press gave them a favorable hearing.
But, as they say, that was then and this is now. McIntosh’s claims have met the same fate as all the rest of the anti-father nonsense. Her work is scientifically shoddy and her data don’t support her thesis. Just three months ago, Professor Richard Warshak published a review of the literature on the well-being of infants and young children who had overnights with their fathers, and found that, not only was McIntosh’s work badly done and her data unsupportive of her claims, in fact the opposite was true. Children who spend nights with their fathers do just fine, thank you. In fact they tend to do better than those who don’t.
If the Warshak piece had been his alone, it would still be an important debunking of McIntosh, but he was far from alone. An amazing 110 colleagues from around the world signed on to his conclusions. Against that weight of scientific consensus, McIntosh needs to resign herself to the facts. And so must the anti-dad crowd.
There’s something unique about that many scientists adding their names and reputations to Warshak’s literature review. It’s as if they want to make sure to put a stop to the anti-father fervor once and for all. It’s like the villagers who gather together to drive a stake through the heart of the vampire that’s been terrorizing them for so long. It’s as if they want to make absolutely certain the thing is dead.
Now, a reputable scientist in McIntosh’s position would admit defeat and try to improve her methodology for future research. In so doing, she’d gain the respect of her colleagues. Plenty of fine scientists have been wrong about one thing or another and will be again. Everyone understands that. But, in keeping with her research methods and analytical abilities, McIntosh seems anything but a reputable scientist. Her response? Blame the messenger.
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’’.
An “impassioned advocate?” Hmm. My correspondence with Warshak hasn’t left me with that impression, but what if he were? Is it really inappropriate to display a level of passion where children’s welfare is concerned? Many, myself included, would argue that anyone who doesn’t get a bit excited when they see public policy damaging children by the millions every year is a bit callous. That’s particularly true in light of the fact that people like McIntosh have been doing their best to keep fathers from children for decades now, knowing full well the damage they were doing. Again, I can’t speak for Warshak. But passionate? You bet we are.
But here’s the nut of the matter, Dr. McIntosh: if you don’t want to be discredited, do better work. If you want to do research, use proper methodology, analyze your data logically and draw only the conclusions that are appropriate to your findings. Above all, don’t begin with a firm idea of where you want to end up. Don’t do research with an ideological bias. Dr. Warshak didn’t discredit you, he and 110 others did, and don’t pretend otherwise. Actually, you alone discredited yourself; they just pointed it out.
As to her claim that her work is “gender neutral,” she’s both correct and too clever by half. McIntosh was of course careful enough to not use the terms “mother” or “father” when discussing overnights. “Custodial parent” and “non-custodial parent” are more accurate and of course gender neutral. But what everyone knows is that the parent with primary custody is all but invariably the mother. So when McIntosh talks about overnights with the “non-custodial parent,” we all know whom she means. Discouraging overnights with the non-custodial parent equals discouraging overnights with fathers, Dr. McIntosh. You know it, I know it. We all do.
But far more important than the likes of Jennifer McIntosh is the effect the demise of her rather desperate bid to plug the hole in the dike separating fathers from children is having on family policy in Australia. It seems the Warshak paper is having an effect, and a salutary one.
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…
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.
Well, there’s a first for everything. In country after country, perhaps the single most shocking thing about family courts is that their judges are utterly ignorant of the science of child well-being and post-divorce parental care. Every custody case in the English-speaking world turns on “the best interests of the child,” and yet no judge receives training in what that consists of. The result is an overwhelming bias in favour of maternal custody and against joint custody. Those of course have been shown for decades to be antithetical to the best interests of children, but judges continue on their merry way telling anyone who will listen how they only want what’s best for kids.
So if Bryant is telling the truth, it’ll be a whole new world in the family courts of Australia. I won’t hold my breath, but just in case, someone needs to send her Dr. Edward Kruk’s latest book, The Equal Parent Presumption. It’s got it all. No one who reads it can ever again engage in the fantasy that children don’t need their fathers or that family courts act in their interests.
Meanwhile, to her credit, even Jennifer McIntosh may be getting with the program.
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’’.
As I said, there’s a first for everything.
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