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Shared Custody and Parenting for Very Young Children

December 15, 2011 - This article from today’s Sidney Morning Herald makes the definitive statement that children 2 and under should not be in shared custody/parenting arrangements.

In 2006, Australia overhauled its family court systems specifically instructing judges to consider shared care as a primary option for children in custody cases.  Many interpreted the new law to mean that judges should award equal time to both parents in the event of divorce, however the language in the statute was not nearly that specific.  It was noted in Australia that good fathers were being removed from the lives of their children and children were suffering as a result.

The statute change was many years in the making and fathers were instrumental in bringing the change about.  The new law was to be in effect for three years at which time it would be reevaluated with an eye to enhancement.  Debate raged for several years prior to the change with the usual groups coming out against this move toward shared parenting. 

One of those raising red flags and arguing against shared parenting prior to changes in the law was psychologist Jennifer McIntosh.  McIntosh is cited several times in the article above as the ‘authority’ on which the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health based its recommendation that “Prior to the age of two years, overnight time away from the primary care-giver should be avoided unless necessary.”

McIntosh's reports raise concerns.  She indicates her research involves high conflict situations, yet her writing style is such that readers will tend to conclude her observations are geared toward and pertain to the broad population of child custody cases.  Such extrapolation is dangerous.  Are the conclusions reached definitive, the research replicable?  Those familiar with family law already know much of its policies and practices are based on less than stellar evidence.  Anyone recall the Super Bowl DV hoax, or the Weitzman divorced standard of living gaffes that have influenced statute development for over 20 years?

McIntosh indicates her findings demonstrate that “babies under two years who lived one or more overnights a week with both parents were significantly stressed.”  Oh really?  That seems an awfully broad statement given the developmental changes infants undergo between the ages of zero and two.  Just how is ‘significant stress’ measured?  Does it mean a one month old cries for three minutes instead of two prior to falling asleep?  McIntosh indicates these babies are more ‘irritable,’ and concludes there are “very good reasons to be cautious about frequent, regular overnight schedules for little people.”

But is the case against overnights, which primarily affect Dad’s relationship with his children, so compelling as to justify curtailing his involvement in his infant’s life?  Hardly.  Consider these comments from leading child custody and development expert Dr. Joan Kelly.   In her well documented article ‘Developing Beneficial Parenting Plan Models for Children Following Separation and Divorce’ Kelly notes:

One of the more sharply contested issues in custody and access
disputes has been whether infants can tolerate overnights
away from their primary caretakers, usually mothers, to spend
night or weekend time with their fathers.22 Various writers and
researchers cautioned that any overnight time away from
mothers before age threeor age four is harmful to the
mother-infant attachment, and therefore strongly recommended
against overnights with fathers. No empirical support has sustained
these recommendations, including the research of psychologists
Judith Solomon and Carol George,…

More recently, empirical longitudinal research reported that
no detriment to children from birth to three years is associated
with overnights with fathers.27  (emphasis added)

Several weeks ago England’s Family Justice Review Final Report was issued which indicated there would be no recommendation for statutory recognition of a child’s need for both parents and no statutory recognition for any type of baseline time sharing arrangement for the children of divorce.  The appendices infer several of the recommendations are influenced by reports out of Australia.  It’s worth noting that reports out of Australia indicate the reform instituted in 2006 are working well in the majority of cases and that citizens are pleased overall with the changes. 

As we’ve noted over many years family courts are subject to many influences, not the least of which are political and ideological.  The effort of special interests to marginalize fathers in the lives of their children, in spite of the well documented evidence of the resulting damage, continues unabated. 

What do you think?  Do you have experience with children who were denied access to their fathers from a young age?  Were you a father denied access?  Were you a child who lost their dad early on?  What do you think of all these ‘experts?’  Share your thoughts on the blog or our facebook page.