By Bettina Arndt — The Sydney Morning Herald, April 28, 2014
A belief that children under three should not stay overnight with their separated or divorced father has underpinned our family law system for years. Has it all been a mistake? Bettina Arndt reports.
Editor’s Note: Little has changed in the last ten years. Now, more than ever, changes are needed in Australia’s family law system.
Across Australia, fathers are being told in mediation sessions or by lawyers that there’s no hope of overnight contact with children under three years old.
At Family Relationship Centres (FRCs), where couples attend compulsory mediation prior to a Family Court appearance, any sharing of overnight care of infants and toddlers tends to be discouraged.
“Sharing of overnight care of infants is problematic,” states a South Australian Family Law Pathways document produced for local family law organisations. The document, funded by the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s department, is circulated by many FRCs throughout the country.
It stresses the “importance of the primary attachment relationship” with the mother and reassures dads that with regular contact, even of a few hours, they can “readily develop close and loving relationships” with their children.
But according to a recently published academic paper endorsed by 110 leading international experts, it is not the case that sharing of overnight care of infants is problematic. The paper, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A consensus report was published in February in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychology, Public Policy and Law.
It is backed by leading Australian academics including Don Edgar, the former head of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Judy Cashmore, Associate Professor in Socio-Legal Studies at Sydney University and Barry Nurcombe, Emeritus Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Queensland.
This article analyses existing research and finds that infants commonly develop attachment relationships with more than one caregiver, and concludes that in normal circumstances children are likely to do better if they have overnight contact with both parents.
It also finds that depriving young children of the opportunity to stay overnight with their fathers could compromise the quality of developing father-child relationships.
The article makes compelling reading because it challenges current policy on the care of young children — policy that has such a firm grip on Australia’s family law system. The report also provides a review of the research underpinning that policy. The most influential study was led by La Trobe university adjunct professor and clinical psychologist Jennifer McIntosh. Her study suggests even one night a week of overnight care undertaken by the non-primary parent may increase the stress levels of children aged zero to two in certain circumstances.
The influence of this study on Australia’s family law system has been so profound that barristers have a special phrase to describe the common experience of losing the battle for some overnight care of toddlers — they joke they’ve been “McIntoshed”. But for the fathers concerned, it is no joking matter.
The McIntosh era dates back to 2010 when the Labor government commissioned her to lead an investigation into the impact on preschoolers of overnight contact in their father’s care.
The previous Coalition government had implemented a series of reforms to family law aimed at enabling children to have more contact with their fathers after a divorce, including in 2006, a presumption of shared parental responsibility.
Prime Minister John Howard was an outspoken advocate of the father’s role in children’s lives, but the Rudd government showed no such inclination.
“Our government supported the right of children to contact with both their parents, provided the child is not exposed to any risk,” says Philip Ruddock, the attorney-general who implemented the 2006 reform. “Labor has sought to wind that back. They’ve long been captured by the female lobby determined to retain sole control over their children.”
In 2007, McIntosh published a report highly critical of the Coalition’s shared custody reforms. When Labor attorney-general Robert McClelland appointed a lead researcher for the new “preschoolers” study, McIntosh was the obvious candidate.
The results brought bad news for fathers. McIntosh’s key finding was that infants under two who spent one night or more a week and toddlers who spend 10 days a month of overnight time in their non-primary caregiver’s care are more irritable, more severely distressed and insecure in their relationships with their primary parent, less persistent at tasks, and more physically and emotionally stressed.
However, the significance of these findings has been questioned in two papers published online in February in Psychology, Public Policy and Law. The expert report, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A consensus report, written by Richard Warshak, psychiatry professor from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, claims that McIntosh and her colleagues “drew unwarranted conclusions from their data”.
The report finds that there are issues with the way the data in McIntosh’s study was collected and analysed, and this leads to problems with the way the findings have later been applied in policymaking and agenda-setting.
Read the full article here.
Social commentator Bettina Arndt has served on two federal government committees concerned with child support and family law.
Photo by Ahmet Polat.