January 26, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
An observant reader has passed on to me a paper from 2011 that is by turns amusing and infuriating. It’s by Robert B. Mellor of the Faculty of Computing, Information Systems and Mathematics of Kingston University in London. Being a paper on statistics, the average reader might be inclined to flee fearing death by boredom, but it’s only four pages long and lets us know some very interesting facts about the use and misuse of social science by our friends at CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service). They’re the ones who tell British courts, among other things, what sort of custody arrangement is in a child’s best interests.
Now, one of my main interests is how people in those roles are trained about the value of fathers to children. Social work has long been identified as an anti-dad field, so Mellor’s paper is of considerable interest.
In it, he considers two social science studies on parenting arrangements and children’s welfare. One is Robert Bauserman’s 2002 study entitled “Child adjustment in joint-custody versus sole-custody arrangements, a meta-analytic review.” The other is Jennifer McIntosh’s 2010 study, “Post separation parenting arrangements and developmental outcomes for infants and children.”
To readers of this blog, both of those are pretty familiar and they come to strikingly different conclusions. But the content of the studies isn’t Mellor’s focus. Being a mathematician, he wants to know the statistical validity of the two works. The term of art used is the statistical “level of confidence” to be given to particular studies.
A statistical confidence interval with a particular confidence level intended to give the assurance that, taken over all the data that might have been obtained, would deliver a confidence interval that included the true value of the parameter. More specifically, the meaning of the term “confidence level” is that across many separate data analyses of repeated and possibly different experiments, the true value of the parameter will approximately match the confidence level (optimally 95% or above).
Applying that definition, Bauserman’s study has a 98% confidence level, while McIntosh’s has a 4% confidence level. (That’s the amusing part. We’ve always known McIntosh’s work is bad, but this is ridiculous.) Therefore, statistically at least, we can trust Bauserman’s findings as not being skewed by a too-small sample size, while, McIntosh’s work comes nowhere near the threshold of confidence of 95%.
Mellor bemoans the innumeracy of the social work profession and at CAFCASS, and goes on to point out their astonishing reliance, not on Bauserman, but on McIntosh. (That’s the infuriating part.)
To sum up, it is paradoxical that:
A: The Bauserman research with a 98% Level of Confidence implies that to continue to leave the mother in a dominant position is a sure recipe for escalated conflict, while the McIntosh et al research with a 4% Level of Confidence implies the opposite and, e.g. the mother can continue to inhabit a dominant position.
B: The Bauserman research with a 98% Level of Confidence implies that the optimal way to reduce conflict and benefit the children most is to introduce real parity between the parents. Conversely, the McIntosh et al research with a 4% level of confidence implies the opposite; that the better option is to actively deny parity and continue with rigid, conflict-laden relationships including the real risk of co-parenting breaking down completely.
So, given that one study has an extremely high level of confidence and the other is statistically worthless, which do you suppose is relied on by the people at CAFCASS who instruct courts on child custody decisions?
As I said before, many practitioners rely heavily not on the primary research literature, but rather on more accessible reviews. For example, a recent review by Trinder (2010) is popular among Cafcass practitioners, but it depends heavily on the article by McIntosh et al implying that some conclusions while being made in good faith are actually seriously compromised…
Allow me to quibble. I don’t believe that the reliance by Cafcass social workers on a study that’s been debunked throughout the world of social science relevant to parenting time and child custody can possibly be “in good faith.” At some point we need to demand some basic level of competence by such people and widespread ignorance about the science bearing directly on what they do for a living doesn’t clear the bar. In such an important position, ignorance can’t be a defense.
The truth is that schools of social work inculcate their students with remarkably biased and demonstrably false notions about fathers. So trained, practitioners seem unwilling to confront their beliefs with applicable science. That’s not good faith; it’s willful blindness in the service of a misandric ideology.
On its website, Cafcass states that it “looks after the interests of children involved in family proceedings. We… advise the courts on what we consider to be in the best interests of individual children.” However, neglecting to critically appraise (or be able to critically appraise) the statistical foundations of reports may well mean that the policies adopted by practitioners result in outcomes that are diametrically opposed to their stated aims and targets.
Indeed. In fact, that’s exactly what I and many others have been arguing for years. Family court judges and the various mental health experts who advise them invariably tell us that they act “in the best interests of children.” But what’s altogether clear is that they do nothing of the kind. Routinely marginalizing fathers in their children’s lives isn’t acting in their best interests; it’s doing the opposite.
Do social workers know that they’re actions are “diametrically opposed to their stated aims and targets?” They either do know that or they’re inexcusably misinformed. In either case they should be fired. Do judges know? It’s hard to say. We only have the vaguest of ideas about what they’re actually taught about parenting time and children’s well-being.
With any luck, the lawsuit pending before the Nebraska Supreme Court may give us a wealth of exactly that information. For now though, it’s nice to see yet another nail driven into the coffin housing Jennifer McIntosh’s shoddy work.
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