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February 21, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The anti-father crowd of social scientists has finally retreated to its last ditch. They’ve been wrong on the science for decades, but often were able to open up new areas in which questions had gone unanswered and so were able to cling to the notion that we couldn’t be certain if children really need their fathers.

It started at least as far back as 1973 with the publication of Beyond the Best Interests of the Child in which the authors concluded that children have but a single important parent – the psychological parent. In the case of divorce, according to Goldstein, Solnit and Freud, sole custody should go to the psychological parent who would also have exclusive discretion about whether to grant the non-custodial parent any parenting time at all, and, if so, how much.

How was the psychological parent to be determined? Simple. We can tell whom the child’s psychological parent is by looking at who does certain tasks of childcare. Interestingly enough, those tasks are the ones typically performed by mothers. Et voila! – mothers were to receive sole custody in essentially all child custody cases and have complete control over fathers’ access to their children.

It took all of a year for social scientists to point out certain flaws in the book that, some three decades after its publication was still by far the most influential single work in the area of child custody. (By then it had been cited almost 300 times by the opinions of appellate courts in the United States alone.) In 1974, Katkin, Bullington and Levine pointed out that the authors had little-to-no empirical evidence with which to support their conclusions.

Years later, Canadian researcher Paul Millar would drive the final nail into the coffin of Beyond the Best Interests of the Child when he concluded that, “The major tenet of Goldstein, Solnit and Freud’s thesis – one that has been adopted wholeheartedly by many jurists, including the Supreme Court of Canada – is not only unsupported by evidence, but, worse, appears to promote harmful outcomes for children through the legal support given the destruction of one of the important parental relationships for the child,” i.e. that with its father. So much for Beyond the Best Interests of the Child.

Over the years, those who would deprive children of their fathers have kept at it despite a growing mountain of evidence that maintaining both parents’ active involvement in a child’s life after divorce is vital to the child’s well-being. But, as the evidence mounted, the rearguard action began and continued until it became a retreat and then a rout. They’ve tried various feints and jabs, but each time have been met with the cold steel of facts that continue to demand that fathers remain involved with their children.  

Thus, domestic violence was claimed to be something committed exclusively by men and therefore fathers were uniquely suspect when it came to parenting. But facts again trumped the pro-mother mythology. Women turned out to be as likely to initiate domestic violence as are men and, mothers acting alone commit twice the child abuse and neglect as do fathers acting alone.

Often enough it happened that children of divorce came to loathe their fathers and wanted nothing to do with them. That seemed like a good enough reason to keep fathers away from their kids until researchers discovered the phenomenon of parental alienation – parents actively turning children away from the other parent. Well known to constitute child abuse, parental alienation is now widely recognized by courts and the laws of many states require parents to promote the relationship of the other parent with the child.

By now, those who seek to separate fathers from children are down to the claim that, when children are very young, they require the stability that a single home provides. According to this latest theory, a child’s staying overnight with its father would be detrimental to its psychological development. The main proponent for this point of view has been Australian researcher Jennifer McIntosh and her work has been thoroughly debunked before.

Of course that didn’t stop the anti-dad crowd from citing it. The Nufield Report in Australia did so as did England’s Cameron Government in its effort to appear to be doing something to address the need of children for fathers while actually doing nothing. And most recently, the committee in Nebraska that hoped to block shared parenting legislation by gathering facts about actual family court practices relied on McIntosh’s work despite her plainly flawed methodology and anti-father bias.

But, continuing the tradition of facts proving the anti-dad crowd wrong, we now have an analysis of the up-to-date literature on young children with separated parents. It was compiled over a two-year period by Dr. Richard Warshak, but, more importantly, was vetted by 110 of the top experts in the field. They come from numerous different disciplines and countries and they all subscribe to Warshak’s conclusions. The analysis utterly destroys McIntosh and all claims that, for young children to be apart from their mothers overnight, would be detrimental to them.

A broad consensus of accomplished researchers and practitioners agree that, in normal circumstances, the evidence supports shared residential arrangements for children under 4 years of age whose parents live apart from each other. Because of the well-documented vulnerability of father–child relationships among never-married and divorced parents, the studies that identify overnights as a protective factor associated with increased father commitment to child rearing and reduced incidence of father drop-out, and the absence of studies that demonstrate any net risk of overnights, policymakers and decision makers should recognize that depriving young children of overnights with their fathers could compromise the quality of developing father-child relationships. Sufficient evidence does not exist to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers. The theoretical and practical considerations favoring overnights for most young children are more compelling than concerns that overnights might jeopardize children’s development.

Warshak goes on to pointedly distinguish between scientists and advocates.

Social science provides a growing and sophisticated fund of knowledge about the needs of young children, the circumstances that best promote their optimal development, and the individual differences among children regarding their adaptability to different circumstances, stress, and change. Consequently, research focused on children whose parents never married, or whose parents separated or divorced, should inform guidelines to advance the welfare and define the best interests of those children; indeed, policymakers and practitioners in family law look to that research for such information. But the road from laboratories to legislatures and family law courtrooms is hazardous—fraught with potential for misunderstandings, skewed interpretations, logical errors, even outright misrepresentations. The hazards can be traced, in large measure, to differences between science and advocacy.

It’s that hazardous road I’ve so often bemoaned. That judges who make decisions about child custody, all of which claim to be in children’s best interests, have not the slightest education in what actually promotes child well-being is, to me, one of the strangest and most destructive phenomena in all of contemporary American life. Of course, part of that institutional ignorance is thanks to the preaching of the anti-dad crowd, i.e. the advocates Warshak is rightly so concerned about.

Advocacy approaches are recognizable by certain core features: Advocates select literature for the purpose of promoting a particular agenda, and ignore or minimize findings that fail to support the desired conclusions; they distort findings toward the advocate’s position; and they use a variety of polemics, loose logic, and emotional appeals to build a persuasive case.

He’s talking to you, Jennifer McIntosh, not only to you, but definitely to you.

By contrast, Warshak’s review of the pertinent literature is scrupulously honest and even-handed as any review would necessarily be that’s overseen by so many equally scrupulous social scientists. Their purpose is clear. They’re not just talking to each other; they want this work to have a practical effect on the people it’s designed for and who should be influenced by it.

The purposes for this document are to provide the family court system—including lawmakers, mediators, decision-makers, parents, guardians ad litem, child custody evaluators, and therapists– with an overview of the research on parenting plans for children under the age of four years whose parents live apart, and to provide empirically supported guidelines that reflect a consensus among leading researchers and practitioners about the implications of that research for policy and practice.

I hope it succeeds. It, like countless other documents on family structure following divorce and children’s well-being, should be read and understood by everyone with a meaningful role in child custody decisions. And I mean everyone. It is beyond absurd – to say nothing of dangerously destructive – that judges, guardians ad litem, custody evaluators and the like aren’t required to know this information.

Thanks to Warshak and his colleagues for making this public and for their dedication to bringing the facts to light.

I’ll get to the nitty gritty of the findings in my next piece.

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