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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

May 10, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Perhaps the sharpest sticking point in the research on shared parenting is that of parental conflict. Those opposed to children maintaining meaningful parenting time with their fathers post-divorce have, in the absence of any other reason/excuse, seized on the notion of parental conflict to deny children access to one parent, typically Dad. So it’s of considerable importance to assess the science on parental conflict following divorce or separation and child well-being.

The estimable Dr. Linda Nielsen has done just that in Volume 23, No. 2 of the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law just published by the American Psychological Association. Because it addresses one of the lynchpins of public policy relating to child custody and parenting time Nielsen’s article is of the utmost importance. It should be required reading for judges, lawyers and mental health professionals practicing in family courts.

I can’t accurately review her article in a single post, so today I’ll focus on her analysis of the few studies that seem to undergird the longstanding practice of courts of restricting joint physical custody (JPC) to parents who are relatively conflict free. As we shall see, doing so reflects a profound and dangerous misreading of the little science that suggests such a restriction may be warranted. Despite that, it appears that both judges and custody evaluators are being taught to avoid ordering or recommending JPC for conflicted parents.

The assumption that, unless parents have a low conflict, cooperative relationship, the children will fare more poorly if they have frequent contact with their father or if they live in a JPC family seems to have originated from five studies in the 1980s. Twenty-five to 30 years ago when these studies were conducted, it was generally assumed that children benefitted most from maximum mothering time while their parents lived together, as well as after they separated. From this perspective, restricting the children’s time with their father would have a less negative impact than exposing them to the parental conflict. The assumption was that, unless the parents had a friendly, low conflict relationship, the more time fathers and children spent together, the more conflict would likely arise.

It is precisely those assumptions/biases that we find every day in court orders and family statutes. As Nielsen demonstrates, they are based on extremely shaky science and ignore the better-done work that tends to contradict their conclusions. Time and again, poorly-done anti-dad studies were given national adulation while better work that concluded in favor of shared parenting were given short shrift.

The earliest of the five studies (Johnston, Kline, & Tschann, 1989) garnered nationwide attention when cited in Wallerstein’s bestselling book on divorce (Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000) to support the view that,

Joint custody arrangements that involve the child in going back and forth at frequent intervals are particularly harmful to children in a high conflict family. Children who are ordered to traverse a battleground between warring parents show serious symptoms that affect their physical and mental health. The research findings on how seriously troubled these children are and how quickly their adjustment deteriorates are very powerful. (Wallerstein et al., 2000, p. 215)

Wallerstein’s books received national media attention for well more than a decade (Kirn, 2012). Prioritizing conflict and recommending against JPC or frequent “visitation” unless conflict was low gained further momentum in books written for family court and mental health professionals (Garrity & Baris, 1997; Hodges, 1991; Johnston & Campbell, 1988; Stahl, 1999).

There was just one problem with Wallerstein’s conclusion – it was explicitly disavowed by the authors of the study. More remarkably still, they did so in the study itself. Did she read it?

The Johnston study involved a population of parents who were so at odds with each other they hadn’t resolved their issues and continued litigating them at least four years after they had divorced. Plus, the judges in their cases were so fed up with them that they’d personally recommended them for the study. Needless to say, such a cohort bears virtually no relation to the huge majority of divorcing parents. The authors pointed out that,

“This study helps to remind us that it is important not to make custody and visitation decisions or to frame social policy and laws based on studies on studies from unrepresentative populations”

But of course that is precisely what happened, egged on by Wallerstein and many others. But the study wasn’t problematical just because of selection bias. It also found that, even those children of the most conflictual parents were about as likely to be emotionally or behaviorally disturbed as kids in the general population.

“There was no evidence that clinically disturbed children [16 of the 100 children] were more likely to be in joint than in sole custody” (p. 583). “Patterns of access [frequency of contact with nonresidential parents] and parental conflict explained less than one fifth of the variance in the children’s behavior” (p. 590). “In the present study, as a group, these children of chronic custody disputes are not distinguishable from a normal population.”

The only thing that seemed to matter was if the parents were not only in conflict, but that they used the children as tools in that conflict. If they fought with each other but left the kids out of it, the children remained essentially unaffected.

Aggression between parents had no direct effect on the children and had only a very weak indirect effect but if the child was caught in the middle and used in the conflict, the connection was stronger. The degree to which children were caught and used in the dispute predicted child disturbances more than the overall level of conflict.

In short, the Johnston study was competently done, but its explicit findings and the exhortations of the authors themselves were simply ignored by both scientists, the mainstream media and educators of judges and custody evaluators. The rest of the studies purporting to question the wisdom of JPC had serious enough flaws to render them incapable of guiding public policy or law.

Two studies done in the late 70s and early 80s examined the behavioral problems of kids in joint custody, but failed to compare them to children in the general population or, more importantly, to those in sole custody. They therefore offer little of value for policy-makers.

A fourth study echoed the Johnston one. Nielsen describes its findings:

In high conflict families when children were placed in the middle of the conflicts or in lower conflict families where the father was an “incompetent or antisocial” parent, the boys—but not the girls—had more behavioral problems, lower self-esteem, and lower school achievement when they saw their father weekly than when they saw him less frequently.

A fifth study gathered 100% of its information from mothers. No fathers were interviewed. Now, to most lay people, it would be fairly obvious that divorce tends to be a highly charged atmosphere in which one party is unlikely to speak accurately about the opposing party. That obvious fact escaped the researchers who took the mothers’ reports at face value.

Not only that, but the study defined “contact” between fathers and children as essentially anything.

It is important to note that “contact” was broadly defined as anything from phone calls and letters to actual time spent with the father.

So whatever conclusions were drawn about the coincidence of conflict and “contact” between fathers and children must be taken with a huge grain of salt. Such a “definition” is so, well, indefinite, as to be useless.

Finally, we come to our old friend Jennifer McIntosh who, along with others, reported the findings of a study in both 2010 and 2016. Weirdly, what they concluded in 2010, they simply altered in 2016 to the opposite of what had gone previously. I’ve seen academics who are desperate to thwart children’s access to their fathers, but frankly, it doesn’t get more desperate than that.

The 2016 publication, however, did not report that the JPC adolescents were not more upset or more distressed than the SPC [sole parental custody] adolescents by their parents’ conflicts, an important finding that was acknowledged in their original report: “At the four year mark, the groups [of teenagers] did not differ significantly [in distress or adjustment] from each other” (McIntosh et al., 2010, p. 44).

In short, the science that’s sometimes used to support the idea that parental conflict should trump a child’s need for its father ranges from shaky to outright dishonest.

What of the science that suggests otherwise? I’ll get into that tomorrow.

 

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National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

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:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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