Best Interest of the Child
Have you heard that children under the age of four should live primarily, or exclusively, with their mothers after their parents separate because too much “overnighting” in their father’s care creates a host of problems—especially for infants? Have you read that babies and toddlers who frequently spend the night at their father’s house are less securely attached to their mothers and are more irritable, anxious, and stressed than those who only spend time with their nonresidential fathers during the day?
If so, then you—along with many lawyers, judges, and policy makers—have been misled. You are unlikely to know that 110 international experts agree with the conclusion reached by psychologist Richard Warshak in his recent research paper: there is no scientific evidence that justifies limiting or postponing overnighting until children of separated parents reach the age of four.
You’re also probably unaware that only six studies have compared overnighting to non-overnighting infants and toddlers—three of which found more positive outcomes for the overnighters, and only one of which found negative effects. That one study has received the most publicity and has also been the most highly criticized for its flaws and questionable conclusions. Unfortunately, the mistaken belief that overnighting is “bad” lives on, too often resulting in custody decisions and custody laws that deprive these very young children of overnight care from their fathers.
So I wanted to find out how and why so many people—including well-educated professionals involved in making custody decisions and reforming custody laws—came to believe that overnighting had been “proven” to be so damaging. As I explain in a recently published article, the answer involves a process I call woozling. The term comes from the children’s story where Winnie the Pooh and his friends become obsessed with the idea that they are being stalked by a frightful beast they call a woozle. In reality, there is nothing to fear because there are no woozle “footprints”; the footprints they see are their own as they keep circling the tree. They were deceived by faulty “data.” Using Winnie’s imaginary woozle as an analogy, the sociologist Richard Gelles coined the word “woozle” to refer to a belief that takes hold in the general public but that is based on inaccurate, partial, or seriously flawed data. But because the faulty conclusion is repeated so often, most people embrace it as the truth.
So how are woozles depriving the youngest children of overnight fathering time? In large part, the answer has to do with a single Australian study that has frequently been cited as “scientific evidence” against overnighting. The message that arose from this 2010 study was this: Babies who overnight more than three times a month and toddlers who overnight more than nine times a month are more irritable, inattentive, physically stressed, anxious, insecure, and wary than other children. They are also “severely distressed” with their mothers, and they wheeze more often due to stress. Overlooking the fact that on four of the six measures the overnighters were no different from the non-overnighters and never mentioning the study’s flaws, many journalists reported on the study under such alarming headlines as “Infants struggle in shared care” and “Shared custody a mistake for under-2’s.”
I set out to peel back the layers of the many woozles arising from this study. For example, the “wheezing woozle” claimed that overnighting caused babies to be so stressed that they wheezed more often. But as most pediatricians and parents know, infant wheezing can be caused by many factors having nothing to do with stress, like mold, pets, cigarette smoke, and carpets in the home. Add to that another medical fact: infant wheezing is often difficult to detect even for doctors, let alone for mothers who were asked to answer only one question (“Does your child wheeze more than four nights a week?”). And even for diehards who insist that the wheezing was measured accurately and was caused by stress, the woozle ignores the fact that toddlers who frequently overnighted wheezed the least.
Then there was the “whining woozle,” claiming that overnighting made babies more irritable and more “severely distressed”—which was interpreted to mean they were not securely attached to their moms. The reality? The overnighting babies had exactly the same mean score on irritability as babies from intact families. Then, too, the babies who frequently overnighted were no more irritable than those who never overnighted.
As for “severe distress,” the overnighters’ scores on the behavioral problems test were well within normal range. And those behaviors that were considered signs of a toddler’s “severe distress”—kicking, biting, or getting angry at their mom, gagging on food or refusing to eat, being clingy and crying when mothers were leaving—turned out to be behaviors reported by nearly 50 percent of Australian moms of toddlers in a separate nationwide survey. In short, the severe distress and whining woozles rest on shaky ground.
Especially in matters as important as depriving children of fathering time, we need to ask ourselves: Am I being woozled in this report about the “scientific evidence”? Fortunately, there are journalists who are not so easily bamboozled and whose investigative reporting raises public awareness about woozled data. Indeed, this has happened in Australia, where the journalist Bettina Arndt investigated the study that I had written about in my woozling paper. By revealing the woozles that the study had created, Arndt’s reporting led several organizations to reexamine their recommendations against overnighting.
But even without the help of journalists, we have a responsibility to examine more carefully the studies that receive the most media attention. Otherwise, we can end up like Winnie the Pooh: woozled into being afraid of something that should never have aroused our fear at all.
Linda Nielsen is a professor of educational and adolescent psychology at Wake Forest University. This post was adapted from her article “Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans and Family Court.”
By Linda Nielsen
23 June 2014
A DARWIN mother has lost custody of her toddler and 3½-year-old daughter because of foul-mouthed language she directed at her former partner.
The ex-partner — who is the father of the toddler but has no biological link to the 3½-year-old — was given sole parental responsibility for the girls.
The girls had been in the primary care of their mother, but federal magistrate Leanne Turner (now a Federal Circuit Court judge after the rebadging of the court) said the mother should have only supervised access to the girls for two hours each weekend at a contact centre.
The mother, who was unrepresented at the court hearing, had been seeking permission to move with the girls to Perth.
However, the father played to the court recordings of her verbally abusing him in front of the children, calling him very extreme offensive names.
He also provided evidence to the court of incessant abusive emails and text messages.
The judgment, delivered in April 2012, but only just published, said that the mother’s “ferocious verbal attacks” on the father had a “heartbreaking” impact on the children.
In one recording, the older girl was heard to say to her father, “Mummy’s a bit angry” after witnessing a tirade of abuse by the mother at changeover.
The magistrate accepted the family consultant’s view that the mother had emotionally abused the children by “callously and directly” engaging them as “involuntary witnesses to her behaviour”.
The consultant said the children were like “blotting paper” absorbing the mother’s negative emotions. The older daughter’s biological father had not had any involvement in her life.
“The mother has no insight that her behaviour towards the father and her persistent denigration of the father in front of the children is harmful for the children,” the judgment said.
The judge said it was up to the mother as to how and when she obtained help from a mental health professional, and that until she did so the short, supervised visits would continue.
“As have many other social scientists, I have written an extensive critique of the McIntosh, Smyth et al study on which Leach relies so heavily—pointing out dozens of examples of how this one study has been “woozled” (distorted and misrepresented) to mislead the public. Leach is yet one more example of how the data from that one study continue to be “woozled” to bamboozle the public into believing that social science research supports a “cautions against overnighting” policy. Since McIntosh has posted a statement on her website expressing her concern about people misrepresenting the study, surely she will contact Leach and the British journalists and publicly correct their misunderstanding of her study. ”
The following was sent to me by Professor Warshak when I requested his comments on Penelope Leach’s recent claims about young children’s overnight visits with their fathers.
Regular overnight stays with dad recommended for most young children after parents split — major study endorsed by 110 leading experts from 15 countries.
The days are past when experts advised divorced dads to make a clean break from the family and remain, at best, visitors in their children’s lives. Growing awareness that children do best with two parents, whether parents are living together or separated, has led to a trend toward shared parenting. Yet some holdouts believe that shared parenting, appropriate for older children, is ill suited to meet the needs of young children.
The latest is Penelope Leach. Her forthcoming book, in defiance of conclusive evidence to the contrary, contends that children under four should not stay overnight with dad after separation.
Our society maintains a curious double standard when it comes to encouraging hands-on shared parenting. For instance, we want dads involved with their infants and toddlers—changing nappies, feeding, bathing, putting to bed, soothing in the middle of the night, cuddling in the morning. But when parents separate, some people mistakenly think that it is best for young children to spend every night in one home, usually with mom, even when this means losing the care their father has been giving them. Despite all strides in cracking gender barriers, many of us still think that it is a mother’s exclusive role to care for infants and toddlers, and that we jeopardize young children’s wellbeing if we trust fathers to do the job.
The result is the common custody plan where infants and toddlers whose have parents separated only get to see their dads a few hours at a time, a couple of days a week. Hurriedly loading and unloading the child into the car and driving to and from dad’s home at the end of a day hardly lays a good foundation for a comforting and secure relationship with dad.
Fortunately, science offers clear guidance on these issues. I spent two years reviewing the relevant scientific literature and vetting my analyses with an international group of experts in the fields of early child development and divorce. The results have recently been published in the American Psychological Association’s prestigious journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. The report is endorsed by 110 of the world’s leading researchers and practitioners from 15 countries. The endorsement by these scholars reflects a groundswell of concern among experts that misinformation about research evidence is impoverishing custody decisions and public policy.
It is unfortunate that Penelope Leach’s compendium of otherwise sage advice perpetuates a myth that relies on research that has been roundly criticized by these leading international authorities on child development. Leach claims that the evidence is undisputed that children under the age of five should spend every night in their mother’s home if their parents separate. Leach cites two outlier studies to support this radical view and overlooks a pool of studies that reported generally positive or neutral findings for overnights with fathers. The Australian study Leach cites relied on a group of 14 infants for some of its conclusions and used unreliable measures. The scientists endorsing the American Psychological Association recent publication concluded that the Australian study “provides no reliable basis to support custody policy, recommendations, or decisions.” So strong was the indictment and its underlying analysis that, in the wake of its publication, the lead author of the Australian study recently admitted: “Cautions against overnight care during the first three years are not supported.” Apparently Professor Leach has not received the update.
So how did we come to our conclusions based on the mass of evidence? Our first goal was to provide a balanced and accurate overview of settled, accepted research of the past 45 years relevant to parenting plans for children under the age of four whose parents have separated. Our second goal was to provide empirically supported guidelines for policy makers and for people who make custody decisions.
We found no support for the idea that children under four (some say under six) need to spend nearly all their time living with only one parent, when their other parent is also loving and attentive. Warnings against infants and toddlers spending overnight time with each parent are inconsistent with what we know about the development of strong positive parent-child relationships. Babies and toddlers need parents who respond consistently, affectionately, and sensitively to their needs. They do not need, and most do not have, one parent’s full-time, round-the-clock presence.
Many married mothers have work patterns that keep them away from their infants and toddlers at night. Like these married mothers, most single mothers do not need to worry about leaving their children in the care of their fathers. To maximize infants’ chances of having a secure lifelong bond with both parents, public policy should encourage both parents to actively participate in daytime and overnight care of their young children. After their separation, both parents should maximize the time they spend with their young children, including sharing overnight parenting time.
How did public policy and the direction of custody decisions go so wrong? It seems related to the legacy of the “motherhood mystique,” the idea that mothers are innately better suited to care for young children. John Bowlby put forward the notion that infants form enduring ties of affection with just one person, normally the mother, before all other relationships and that this relationship both ranks higher than and serves as a template for other relationships.
A number of studies have examined this hypothesis to see if it reflects infant experience. The research shows that children develop multiple relationships at around the same time. They form relationships with more than one care giver. These are independent of one another in the sense that the relationship with the mother is not a template for that with dad. Even John Bowlby came to recognize later in his career that infants form attachments with more than one caregiver. We cannot rank order these relationships.
It is clear that we should encourage relationships with both parents. Doing so doubles the infant’s chances of having at least one high-quality relationship. Also, moms and dads make different contributions to their children’s development.
The evidence continues to mount. A recent study reported long-term benefits to teenagers and young adults who, as pre-schoolers, spent overnights with their fathers after their parents separated. These children feel more important to their dads than do those who were deprived of overnights. They report better relationships with their dads at no cost to the quality of their relationships with their mothers. And these children showed no signs of any long-term stress-related health problems.
Of course, shared parenting is not for all families. Regardless of their children’s ages, parents should consider a number of factors when creating the best parenting plan. What works for one child in one family may not be best for another child in another family. Our recommendations apply to most families. Some parents are negligent, abusive, or grossly deficient in their parenting, and their children would need protection from them even in intact families, But that fact should not be used to deprive the majority of children who were being raised by two loving parents from continuing to have that care after their parents separate.
It is time to resolve our ambivalence and contradictory ideas about fathers’ and mothers’ roles in their children’s lives. If we value Dad reading Goodnight Moon to his toddler and soothing his fretful baby at 3 a.m. while the parents are living together, why withdraw our support and deprive the child of these expressions of fatherly love just because the parents no longer live together, or just because the sun has gone down?
Warshak R A (2014) Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Vol. 20, No. 1, 46–67
Nielsen, L. (2014). Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans, and Family Court. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Vol. 20, No. 2, 164–180
About the Authors
Linda Nielsen is a Professor of Adolescent and Educational Psychology at Wake Forest University. A member of the faculty for 35 years, she is a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships. Her work has been featured in a PBS documentary, on National Public Radio, and in dozens of magazines and newspapers. She has authored five books and published numerous articles in peer reviewed journals. Among her honours are: the Outstanding Article Award from the U.S. Center for Women Scholars, a postdoctoral fellowship from the American Association of University Women, and an American Bar Association award for establishing an internship program to provide legal aid to victims of domestic violence. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, National Council on Family Relationships, Council on Contemporary Families, and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.
Richard Warshak is a clinical research psychologist, Clinical Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and a member of the Editorial Board of three professional journals. His ground breaking research, trenchant challenges to gender stereotypes and passionate advocacy for children have made him one the world’s most respected authorities on divorce, child custody, and the psychology of alienated children. As White House consultant and through his writing, speeches, legislative and courtroom testimony, videos, and workshops, Dr. Warshak has had a profound impact on the law and well-being of families where parents live apart from each other. His work has been featured in a PBS documentary and in media including the New York Times, USA Today, Macleans, the London Sunday Telegraph, the Toronto Star, and Time. Dr Warshak has written two books and published numerous articles in peer reviewed journals.
A western Sydney father has won the right to vaccinate his children after a drawn-out legal battle with their mother, who is strongly opposed to immunisation.
The Family Court rejected the mother’s claims that the children, who will turn 14 and 12 this year, were at an increased risk of experiencing ”vaccine damage” due in part to various allergies she believes they suffer from.
Sitting at Parramatta, Justice Garry Foster said the 42-year-old woman, given the pseudonym Ms Duke-Randall, had submitted hundreds of documents about the risks of vaccination, such as the link to autism.
Justice Foster said much of it ”is comments, submissions, irrelevancies” and Ms Duke-Randall had become ”narrowly focused on it, perhaps to the point where the best interests of her children have been subsumed”.
The father, Mr Randall, 52, said during their marriage he agreed with Ms Duke-Randall’s anti-vaccination view ”for the sake of peace in the household” but since their divorce in August 2011, he had come to realise his son and daughter were missing out on extra-curricular activities because they were not immunised.
Some of his relatives were unwilling to have their children socialise with his children and he was worried they would be excluded from school during an outbreak of an infectious disease.
But he said he ”was simply unable to negotiate with [the mother] on the issue”.
While the parents fought over other issues including custody and property, the court restrained both parents from vaccinating the boy and his younger sister until a three-day hearing into the immunisation issue could be held in January this year.
But last month Justice Foster discharged the order, finding the mother had been deliberately delaying proceedings and ignoring directions, which led to the ”strong inference that she has done so to suit her own end that the issue as to vaccination be delayed for as long as possible”.
The mother claimed any delay in presenting her case was caused by the court not permitting her to use medical evidence regarding her children’s susceptibility to being adversely affected by vaccines.
Justice Foster accepted evidence from a senior consultant in immunology, given the pseudonym Professor K, that both children are healthy and do not have any allergies or any other contraindications to vaccination.
Both children had been kept on a low-salicylate and low-amine diet but once the father gained primary custody, they had begun to eat a normal diet, Professor K said.
She recommended the children be bought up to date with the routine childhood immunisations.
I often crow about the virtues of constructive activism, having seen too many father’s lament in their own misfortune, and spend the rest of their lives complaining and becoming increasingly bitter at a system that seems immovable and unchangeable. It can change of course, but it takes the actions of many to make it happen, and these actions begin and end with the individual.
Simon Turner is one individual who has done just this, he has done his bit, by turning an ugly event in his life into a strong message of support, and adds another voice that in a positive way encourages change. Ask yourself whether you too can measure up to his standard. If not, then maybe taking a few notes from this book might be the next best thing.
“Straight forward honest advice that could have saved me eight years of pain and heartache, not to mention a few dollars.” - John Anderson, (Radio Surveyor)
In any case, well done Simon, you have written an important book, which will hopefully support many men in their darkest hour of need, and maybe, just maybe, it may also inspire another father to do their bit too, to add to the growing body of work that collectively is screaming out for change for a family law system that is compromised, broken, and discriminatory against children and fathers. See Simon’s description of his book below.
My name is Simon Turner, I am a single father who has recently written and published a book called “Out on a Limb- A single fathers guide to his family’s lore of the jungle” for other single fathers on a similar journey to obtain a shared care agreement for their children.
The book is a practical easy to read guide based on the three golden rules I received from a Family Court Judge that dramatically changed my situation.
Out on a Limb is not legal advice or the gospel but it does make a lot of man-sense and provides the reader with a number of answers to multitude of questions any single father may have. For when it’s time for a man to take on the task of applying for the care (be it shared or otherwise) what they will discover is all they need is some guidance, a lot of patience and a bit of help to reach an agreement on what’s best for their kids.
“Out on a Limb” is a much needed, practical, down-to-earth, easy read for any bloke battling to avoid a war and remain a father to his children. This book proves that strength is a virtue not a weapon, well done Simon.” - Ian (Watto) Watson, Founder of “Shed Happens” and author of “Every Bloke’s a Champion – Even You!”
I am seeking your help to distribute the message to as many Australian men as possible. It seems these days that most people “know of” someone in this situation and although we want to help, we don’t know where to start. I wrote this book over 72 consecutive nights about a year or so after my son’s case had been successfully resolved. The book contains 72 easy to read chapters that focus on what a single father can do – to give himself the best chance of parenting after a divorce or separation.
Out on a Limb is constructive, easy to read and very affordable. It is written for the bloke in the pub with his head in his beer to the man behind his desk with his head in his hands.
The book costs $25 and we are happy to further publish any reviews from members who may have purchased the book.
Well known social researcher Bettina Arndt is researching an article focussed on the recent academic paper in which 110 leading family researchers supported overnight care of infants and toddlers.
She’s urgently seeking men to interview whose contact with their young children has been adversely affected by assumptions in our family law system that such overnight care is damaging for young children. She’s particularly interested in cases where the research by Jen McIntosh was used to justify such decisions.
As she needs a father willing to be named and photographed, this precludes men who have had a Family Court ruling – although she would still like to hear from you if you have had a recent (2010 or later) Family Court ruling where such contact was denied. In this case the law requires she can only write about the cases without naming the individuals concerned – but she’d still like to mention relevant rulings.
But most important is finding fathers who can speak openly about their experiences with mediators and lawyers regarding overnight contact with very young children. Perhaps you have been unable to negotiate overnight contact in a mediation session or were told by your lawyer that the courts were unlikely to allow this. She only wants to talk to men who have had this experience in the last five years.
If you are interested in contacting Bettina Arndt to discuss your experience, please send her an email here.
The first ‘March for the Voice of the Children’ is being held in Hyde Park North, Sydney on Father’s Day, 1st Sept 2013. The march aims to raise awareness about the risks and problems associated with parental alienation, to make Australia a better place for children to grow up and a fairer place for fathers and their families.
This is a serious issue for society as according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2009-10 2 out 3 children do not have meaningful relationships with both their parents if they are no longer together. In nearly all cases the father is the alienated parent, sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity – but frequently not. So according to the Government’s numbers there are 750,000 Australian children alienated from their fathers.
This is more than the combined populations of the Sunshine Coast, Wollongong and Geelong – just imagine these towns full of fatherless children and you begin to realise the scale of the problem. And these are not just children from broken homes, disadvantaged groups or those with bad fathers. These are children from everyday families from all walks of life.
The march is a peaceful and silent march, representing the voice that our children do not have when they are alienated from loving parents. There will be speakers prior to the march, including the legendary Alby Schultz, former MP for Hume and long time campaigner around issues associated with parental alienation.
• Judges are merely experts in the law but make major decisions about children’s safety and lives and lack expertise in this field. They rely on the advice of Independent Children’s Solicitors who have basic degrees in law and usually avoid contact with the children whose best interests they supposedly represent.
• Judges take advice from court appointed clinicians who are not usually professionally qualified in child development or child abuse.
• Judges are knowingly placing children into the care of abusing parents or guardians with little forethought as to the ramifications of their actions, and thus failing their duty of care as civil servants of the crown.
Mediation expert Peter Sheehy said couples were often not aware of the costs of a court battle.
“All the asset pools are down, real estate is down or static,” Mr Sheehy said.
“An $800,000 pool may be reduced by $100,000.
“Why would you spend $200,000 on legal fees when the asset pool is only worth $800,000?”
The Federal Government has just increased the Family Law Court fees, with the cost of a one-day trial now $638.
Research by The Courier-Mail shows it costs $300 to $400 an hour for a lawyer and an expert witness, such as accountants and property valuers, and $4000 to $5000 per day for a barrister, which includes fees to read legal documents.
Editor: This article leaves out a lot of important information. For example, were the previous Orders “by consent” or handed down by the Court (which would be highly irregular)? Why was every weekend ever agreed to by the mother? Why was the father not provided with weekday plus weekend care (as in shared parenting), to share the burden equally? If anyone can post the citation to this case it would be most helpful.
The dad was also accused of failing to acknowledge the six-year-old girl was suffering from separation anxiety after spending every weekend of the school year with him.
The custody deal was described as “unusual in the extreme” and was pared back yesterday after the mother lodged an appeal in the Federal Magistrate Court in Brisbane.
Federal Magistrate John Coker granted a variation to the custody orders, allowing the girl from the “fairly brief” relationship to spend every second weekend with her mother, who is her primary carer.