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May 22, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Having spent the last three + years either espousing limited overnights for “non-resident” parents, i.e. fathers in the overwhelming majority of cases, or refusing to contradict those who used her research to support same, Jennifer McIntosh has now spent the last couple of months, furiously trying to distance herself both from her own statements and those made by others in response to her work. That’s all come about because her 2010 study and her subsequent work for the Association of Family and Conciliatory Courts has been buried under an avalanche of recent data and analyses of past research that thoroughly debunks her work.

That all puts McIntosh in an uncomfortable position. She’s an academic and relies on her reputation for professional respect and grants for future research. Given that her work on overnights for young children has been revealed as shoddily done and misleading, McIntosh finds herself in a pickle. If you’re Jennifer McIntosh, what do you do?

It seems she’s taking a two-pronged approach to salvaging some vestige of her professional reputation. The first is indignant denial that she’s ever claimed anything other than that frequent overnights should be avoided. That may work with the public at large, but, as I said in my last piece, her steadfast refusal to correct an ever-expanding record of her work being used to deny fathers both overnights with young children and shared parenting at all, tells a different story. That refusal, plus the fact that seemingly everyone who interviewed her and everyone who read her work seems to have gotten the same message, a message McIntosh now wants us to believe she never sent, make her current denials less than persuasive.

That brings us to the second prong of her effort to defend herself against the attacks of more reliable scientists. She and two other researchers, Marsha Kline Pruett and Joan Kelly, have come out with two companion papers published in the Family Court Review. Part I is the authors’ effort to give their own version of the current state of the science on overnights for young children and Part II is an attempt to provide courts and parents practical guidance on whether and how many overnights “non-resident” parents should have with their kids.

Do we find a chastened McIntosh in these latest efforts? Is this her mea culpa to both the scientific and legal worlds? Part I of her work with Pruett and Kelly might lead us to believe so. Part II? That’s another matter.

In Part I, the three authors present a view of fathers that’s much more in keeping with what so many have learned over the past fifty years or so.

Attachment refers to a specific facet of the infant/parent relationship. Attachment is a biologically based behavioral system in all infants of all cultures that has the set goal of ensuring protection from disorganizing anxiety through proximity to attuned and responsive caregivers, who soothe in the face of distress and support exploration in the world. Attachment relationships are understood to support the infant’s growing ability to express and regulate emotions (see Siegel & McIntosh 2011 for overview), as well as to explore and learn with confidence (Gunnar, 2000; Sroufe, Egeland, Carlson & Collins, 2005). Studies in multiple contexts have demonstrated the developmental reach of attach-ment trauma (Sagi-Schwartz & Avierzer, 2005; Zeanah, Danis, Hirshberg et al., 1999), as well as the power of healthy attachments to buffer trauma (Sroufe, et al., 2005)…

Research on infant-father and other significant attachments confirm Ainsworth’s early observation (1977) that infants are equipped to form concurrent attachments to emotionally available caregivers by approximately 7–8 months (Easterbrooks & Goldberg, 1987; Lamb, 1977 a, b). There is agreement across multiple studies that infants prefer proximity to one parent or the other at different ages and for different needs and experiences, particularly in their first 18 months (Fox, Kimmerly, & Shafer, 1991; van IJzendoorn & De Wolff, 1997). Attachment status to mother and father are generally independent, with each relationship influenced by the contingent response of each parent. While security with one parent does not reliably predict security with the other, attachments to co-habiting parents are mutually influenced (Main et al., 2011; Kochanska & Kim, 2013; Sroufe, 1985; van IJzendoorn & De Wolff, 1997).

Meta-analytic studies of infant attachments to both parents in non-clinical samples found a similar proportion of infants (67%) classified with secure attachments to father or to mother (van IJzendoorn & De Wolff, 1997; Kochanska and Kim, 2013). In a demographically varied sample of 101 families, Kochanska & Kim (2012) reported that 45% of infants had secure attachments concurrently to both their mothers and fathers, while 17% were insecurely attached to both…

As first articulated by Bowlby, normative differences between mother and father care-giving behaviors have long been noted across cultures. Mothers’ sensitive response to infants’ stress states and fathers’ sensitive and stimulating play and teaching behaviors are particularly salient (Ainsworth, 1967; Brown et al., 2012; Grossmann et al., 2002; van IJzendoorn & DeWolff, 1997). Each pattern of interaction can foster secure attachment. Theory posits and research provides evidence that a mother’s sensitive response to stress enables the child to experience that the world is predictable, safe, and that the child can learn to manage his/her distress through the relationship. Similarly, a father’s sensitive challenging facilitates the child’s learning to monitor and control his/her excitement, promoting the goal of self-regulation…

The idea that babies have gender biases in attachment formation is not well supported. The more accurate assertion is that babies respond best to sensitive and predictable care giving that facilitates internalized patterns of care; that is, babies learn to respond across situations as if they can expect such quality of care.

This is the person who, in her earlier work, simply assumed the primacy of mother-child relationships? This is the researcher who, for years, allowed her work to be interpreted to marginalize fathers in the lives of their children? This is the speaker who left the impression everywhere she went that fathers having overnights with their young children is to be avoided?

But McIntosh, et al aren’t done yet. They move beyond attachment theory to the science on parental involvement with children and the deleterious effects of fatherlessness.

The attachment literature added support to the father involvement literature on this very point. Researchers from both theoretical leanings established through their studies what children have always demonstrated clinically: the early years matter and young children desire and benefit from warm and positive involvement with both of the people who gave birth to and are invested in their well-being.

The authors move on to identifying various factors, including maternal gatekeeping and the divorce industry as critical components affecting fathers’ opportunities to maintain contact with their children.

Lest anyone misunderstand the context in which all this arises, Pruett, McIntosh and Kelly make it clear that what’s at issue is family law and court practices. What they call the “Heart of the Debate,” is “Parenting Time Distribution After Separation.” In other words, this is not some abstract theory; the science they cite, the opinions they express are part and parcel of hotly-contested real-world decisions by judges and others about whether children get to have a relationship with both parents post-divorce or separation, and if so, how much time with each. The authors intend to influence public policy. Let no one in the future pretend they don’t.

Given that, the authors go off the rails here:

Current general population statistics in the United States and Australia indicate that in separated families, between 93–97% of children aged 0–3 years spend less than 35% of their nights with the non-resident parent (Kaspiew et al., 2009; McIntosh, Smyth, Kelaher, 2010; Tornello, Emery, Rowen, Potter, Ocker & Xu, 2013). These data appear to reflect normative sociological differences in parenting roles during infancy. While active parenting by fathers is increasing in intact families, across many western countries (Casper & Bianchi, 2001; Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004) the majority of hands-on care-giving during infancy is still undertaken by mothers (Baxter, Gray & Hayes, 2010).

The claim that the almost 100% of separated or divorced parents consigning Dad to less than 35% parenting time in some way “reflect(s) normative sociological differences in parenting roles” appears to be simply false. After all, a casual glance at the parenting time of fathers and mothers in intact and non-intact families indicates a far different norm. For example, Dr. Edward Kruk reports in his fine book, The Equal Parent Presumption, that the most recent data from Stats Canada and Health Canada indicate fathers doing between 40% and 48% of the direct parenting of children. Further, “these data are consistent with the time use data from the United States.” In short, where McIntosh, et al get their idea of normative behavior is anyone’s guess.

The simple fact is that family courts marginalize fathers in the lives of their children. So those separated parents referred to above bear little resemblance to parents in intact relationships in terms of the time they spend with their kids. Face it, it’s one of the main problems with family court parenting time orders; they refuse to recapitulate the actual parenting roles of fathers and mothers established during marriage.

The authors go on to briefly refer to five studies of overnights with children, including McIntosh, et al’s notoriously flawed 2010 study. Just why they ignored the other three is a mystery, but unlike her earlier efforts, this time McIntosh makes no bold claims for what the literature on overnights really demonstrates.

On many levels, the studies are difficult to summarize, and defy grouping. Each used different samples and different data sources, asked different questions about how outcomes are related to overnight time schedules for infants, and explored different schedules and amounts of overnight time. None of the studies can be said to provide a comprehensive coverage of the relevant developmental issues. The usual research caveats are applicable: data collected at one time point precludes interpretations that suggest cause and effect (this pertains to all of the studies except Tornello), and statistically significant findings may be small enough in absolute terms not to be clinically relevant (see Pruett & DiFonzo, this issue, for an expanded explanation of the latter caveat). Moreover, the studies illustrate the importance of taking into account differences between and within samples of families with widely varying demographic characteristics. Multiple questions remain, such as which infants fare better with more frequent overnight arrangements, and what aspects of development—such as cognitive, language, and psychosocial outcomes—may be enhanced by including overnight care in parenting schedules from an early age as well as later ages. None have covered the range of families seen in family court and those who negotiated parenting plans with lawyers, mediators, or among themselves. This field of knowledge will advance and increasingly differentiate family and parenting circumstances based on the collective evidence of multiple studies that are yet to be conducted.

In short, according to these authors, existing literature on the subject of overnights is incomplete. That’s unquestionably true, and we’re glad to know that McIntosh has so thoroughly backtracked on her previous claims and the claims of others she allowed to go unopposed. But what’s strange is that, having concluded that existing studies are insufficient to establish policy on the subject of overnights for very young children, she and her colleagues proceed to do just that in their companion piece.

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