April 27, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Dr. Richard Warshak isn’t yet done punishing the authors of some of the shoddiest, most obviously biased research on overnights for fathers and children under the age of four. As bad as the 2010 study by McIntosh, et al was, a 2013 effort by Tornello, et al descends to almost the same depths, possibly deeper.
Recall that for decades, the social science on shared parenting for all children, including infants and toddlers, had been trending toward greater understanding of the value of both parents in their children’s lives. Put simply, children attach to both parents and suffer when they lose either one. So taking Dad out of a child’s life is likely to have serious adverse consequences. By contrast, when both parents are involved in a child’s life, that child has an advantage over his/her peers with but a single parent.
Then along came Jennifer McIntosh and a few others who decided to try to re-establish the Tender Years Doctrine, albeit in limited fashion. They claimed that allowing children overnight visits with Dad worked to their detriment. The only problem with that claim is that the science they came up with to support it is so laughably bad, so unquestionably flawed and so frankly aimed at a particular outcome as to actually damage their anti-dad crusade.
The Tornello study, like McIntosh’s, is a case in point.
The second study similarly focused predominantly (85%) on children whose parents had never been married or lived together (30%). Tornello et al.’s sample was even less typical than the Australian sample of most parents who take a custody dispute to trial or who mediate a settlement with lawyers. The study’s data came from the Fragile Families sample of inner-city children born in impoverished circumstances: 62% of the age 1 sample lived below the poverty line, 60% of the parents were imprisoned before the children’s fifth birthdays, 85% were Black or Hispanic, 65% had parents who had nonmarital births from more than one partner in their teenage or young adult years, and nearly two-thirds had not completed high school.17
Truly, you can’t make this stuff up. Tornello’s subjects were utterly unrepresentative of the general population and the population of divorcing parents. And, since great minds think alike, his study, like McIntosh’s, included many fathers who’d never seen their children, much less spent significant time with them. How a cohort like that is supposed to tell us anything about the children of once-married parents remains a mystery. And again like McIntosh’s study, Tornello’s gets worse.
Similarly, Tornello et al. assessed the child’s attachment to the mother with a measure that had no established reliability or validity. The Warshak consensus report and other scholars have questioned the validity of the attachment measure and the meaning of findings based on the measure because the instrument was completed by mothers rather than by trained professional raters.29 Other researchers using this same attachment measure have acknowledged that it lacks objectivity,30 which is an important factor in determining the admissibility and weight of opinions based on this measure.
So, in addition to an unrepresentative sample, Tornello, again like McIntosh, measured children’s responses with a tool that has “no established reliability or validity.” But that’s still not the worst of it.
Even overlooking that Tornello et al. used a nonstandard attachment measure administered in a nonstandard manner, the results were ambiguous. Insecurity in the infants was more common among the frequent overnighters, followed by the never overnighters, followed by the occasional overnighters. A similar, nonlinear pattern characterized the McIntosh et al. results.32 Thus, as the Warshak consensus report and others have noted, frequency of overnights did not predict insecurity in either study.33
Therefore, even if the study had been conducted properly (which it wasn’t) using a representative sample of respondents (which they weren’t), its findings offer no guide about whether children should spend overnights with their fathers or not. Plus, as an added attraction, the press release on the study misrepresented what those findings were.
The press release issued by the lead investigators’ university, while failing to mention the unreliability of the attachment measures, incorrectly claimed that infants who spent at least one night per week away from their mothers had more insecure attachments than babies who saw their fathers only during the day. In fact they did not.31
There’s a word for all this anti-science – desperation. The authors appear to have been so dead set on finding some obstacle – any obstacle – to place between fathers and their very young children that they bent over backwards to construct one. When even that failed, they simply misrepresented the results of their jerry-rigged studies.
Still, the worst is yet to come.
Interpreting the attachment findings is complicated by another fact that Tornello et al. did not report: More than half of the infants classified as frequent overnighters lived predominantly with their fathers. But the data were reported and interpreted as if the mother was always the “resident” parent and the babies were overnighting with a “nonresident” father.
Really. Tornello neglected to mention that over 50% of the infants in his study in fact spent more time with their fathers than their mothers. Accordingly, those occasional “overnight” visits were predominantly with mothers, not fathers. Therefore, if Tornello truly wants us to believe that overnights are bad for infants, then it’s overnights with mothers that are the problem, because the primary parent in over half the cases was Dad.
I want to say that it’s hard to screw up a study any worse, but then I think of McIntosh’s effort and, well, I just can’t decide to whom the Oscar should go.
And that, my friends is the state of the opposition. More scrupulous scientists would have the good sense and the personal integrity to at least be embarrassed by the nonsense put out by McIntosh and Tornello, but I suppose that’s the point - these people aren’t scrupulous. They have an anti-father agenda and they’re not about to let it go, regardless of scientific rigor, and above all, regardless of what’s best for kids.
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