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May 18, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Despite its serious flaws that led many social scientists aware of the literature on shared parenting and overnights for very young children to dismiss McIntosh et al’s pre-schooler study as “relatively insignificant” due to the insignificance and ambiguity of its data, the thing took on a life of its own. Particularly in light of the fact that it purported to contradict existing studies that found little or no downsides to overnights with fathers, McIntosh et al’s study had, and continues to have, an impact on parenting policies far, far beyond anything warranted by what the study actually is — a work so methodologically flawed as to render it useless for much of anything save possibly a spur to future, better efforts.

But a woozle would not be a woozle if its import weren’t expanded beyond recognition in exactly that way, and the pre-schooler study in 2010 did so. Unlike the seven other studies that largely contradicted it and received little public recognition outside of academia, McIntosh, et al’s work went viral. Like everything else that goes viral, it had a lot of help from a wide range of people, not all of whom were the authors of the study. But, despite what McIntosh would now have us believe, she was an ardent proponent of claims that went far beyond what her study actually stands for.

As an aside, it would be interesting to learn the precise process by which this study went viral. How was it that a study that is utterly incompetent to guide anyone making public policy on parenting time came to do exactly that? My guess is that, because its message is to marginalize fathers in children’s lives and because that’s a message that plays well with the family law establishment, feminists and politicians eager to stay on the good side of women voters, the pre-schooler study was a seed that found fertile ground. The other seven studies were dismissed by those same interests because they contradicted their preferred narrative of the primacy of motherhood.

But whatever the exact process was, there is no doubt that the study has had an impact on public discourse, public policy and the policies of private entities that is utterly unwarranted. This came about thanks to the efforts of many disparate forces in government, academia and the mainstream news media. And among the lead proponents of the woozle - that overnights for children in the home of their “secondary” parent (all but invariably their father) are to be undertaken with caution, if at all — was Jennifer McIntosh, lead author of the pre-school study that, ever since its publication has been rightly criticized for its many flaws.

Therefore, shortly after its publication, Australian news outlets relayed its purports, or at least what they understood them to be based on their interviews with McIntosh. So the Sydney Morning Herald informed readers under the headline “Trouble Ahead for Babies of Divorce,” that “The majority of babies who live alternately with their divorced parents develop long-lasting psychological problems, new research has found. Such arrangements cause enduring disorganised attachment in 60% of infants under 18 months, says clinical psychologist and family therapist, Jennifer McIntosh.” Other journalists wrote, after interviewing McIntosh, that shared care is a “developmental disaster,” and toddlers in shared care engaged in “violent behavior.”

Of course the study said no such thing and no such conclusions were in any way warranted. And I’d be surprised if McIntosh ever told anyone that shared care leads to violence in toddlers. Still, the woozle’s footprints were beginning to appear in the mainstream news media.

They appeared elsewhere and, like the footprints Pooh and friends were following, they all looked remarkably alike. So the international organization of family court professionals, the Association of Family and Conciliatory Courts (AFCC) engaged McIntosh produce a special edition of its publication devoted to shared care and overnights for the very young. What she produced was immediately derided as less a scientific inquiry than a polemic opposing fathers and their access to their children. Indeed, McIntosh solicited articles for the publication from a variety of researchers, but didn’t manage to do so from anyone who opposed her findings. In short, she “hand-picked” her experts and then made the brazen and false claim that they, in some way, represented a consensus of researchers in the field.

“Anyone in the know about attachment will agree: this is a stellar, comprehensive lineup of experts.”

It was anything but and of course the edition they produced was a one-sided effort to channel the debate on shared parenting and overnights against non-primary parents who just happen to be fathers in the vast majority of cases. In addition to only including like-minded researchers, the edition ignored research that contradicted the anti-shared overnights narrative. McIntosh concluded,

“Overnight stays away from the primary caregiver in early infancy are generally best avoided, unless of benefit to the primary caregiver.”

But McIntosh was nowhere near finished. In an address to 1,000 members of the AFCC, she frankly misrepresented a 2004 study by Pruett as support for her pre-schooler work. But, as Nielsen explains,

Pruett did not find significant differences between the overnighting and the nonovernighting two to three year-olds.

At the same conference, she strongly suggested that her work was based on the whole of the 10,000-person cohort of the LSAC when in fact, some of her data came from as a few as 14 individuals.

By this time, McIntosh was travelling the globe, sometimes electronically, bringing her message on overnights to the world far beyond academia. She spoke to the Massachusetts Association of Guardians ad Litem, the Minnesota Bar Association, the Nuffield Foundation in London, the New Zealand Psychological Society and of course many journalists along the way. And at each step of her journey, the seeds of anti-shared parenting and anti-overnights for fathers were planted and flourished. McIntosh, et al’s pre-schooler study had its effect far and wide.

In Australia, it was used to roll back gains made by fathers in the 2006 family law reforms. It was cited as “strong evidence” for the rollback by none other than the Attorney General of the country. Nielsen described some of McIntosh’s far-reaching effects.

The study also had an impact on three influential organizations in Australia: the Australian Psychological Society, the Association for Infant Mental Health, and the National Council for Children Post Separation (2013). All three recommended or warned against overnighting for infants and shared care for other children under the age of four, citing only two empirical studies: the preschooler study and the study by Solomon and George (1999). McIntosh was the lead author of the infant overnight care paper (McIntosh, 2011c) which was the background paper for the AAIMH guidelines (AAIMH, 2011) and was lead author of the position statement paper for the Australian Psychological Society (McIntosh et al., 2009). Many of the statements in these documents were similar to statements that McIntosh made one year later in the special issue of Family Court Review — statements that other scholars criticized for misrepresenting and overreaching the research, as previously discussed (McIntosh, 2011a). The Infant Mental Health guidelines were disseminated by the Australian media (Griffin, 2011; Overington, 2011), as well as by law firms’ web sites that warned against overnighting and shared care (Magee, 2010; O’Loughlin,2011).

The pre-schooler study was used in the United Kingdom to oppose fathers’ rights to their children post-divorce and shared parenting generally. In the United States it was used to bolster opposition to shared parenting by the Maryland and Minnesota state bar associations. An Oregon legislative advisory committee used the study to oppose shared parenting. Most recently, the same was done by the committee that looked into child custody results in Nebraska. And of course numerous advocacy organizations have cited the study as opposing not only overnights for fathers, but any sort of shared parenting law.

In short, bad as it is as science, McIntosh et al’s study of overnights for very young children became a woozle for the proposition that, in her words, “Overnight stays away from the primary caregiver in early infancy are best avoided…” and that overnights for older kids are to be avoided as well as is shared parenting generally.

Some of that woozle was beyond McIntosh’s control; some of it was actively promoted by her. And now that the weakness of her work is known to all via Warshak, Nielsen and their 110 colleagues, she’s running away from it as fast as she can. But that effort, like her effort on overnights, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

I’ll get into that in my next piece.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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