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May 15, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

No sooner had I completed my review of Dr. Linda Nielsen’s latest paper on parental conflict and parenting time in child custody cases than the Nebraska Court Administrator finally coughed up the documents reflecting how family judges are educated about custody and parenting time in that state. I haven’t yet completed reading the 168-page disclosure, but the first few pages are doozies.

Readers will recall that Nielsen reprised some of the research on how judges and custody evaluators are educated about conflict and parenting time. Much of what they learn is either biased or flat wrong.

“Most courts and commentators agree with the oft-quoted dictum that joint custody is encouraged primarily as a voluntary alternative for relatively stable, amicable parents behaving in mature civilized fashion” (p. 216). When parents are unable to communicate faceto- face and when there is a level of distrust between them, even joint decision making (joint legal custody) is often not considered to be in the child’s best interests. “This principle is abundantly established in case law” (DiFonzo, 2015, p. 218)…

For example, 57% of 213 custody evaluators with doctorates who had been in practice at least five years ranked cooperation, low conflict and communication among the most important variables influencing their recommendations for or against JPC (Ackerman & Pritzl, 2011). Only 13% of these custody evaluators considered “maintaining or maximizing the parent-child relationship” a high priority in making custody recommendations.

So it should come as no surprise that, exactly as I’ve predicted several times, the “education” of Nebraska’s judges is the same – biased and wrong.

The 2012 Fall Judges Meeting took place over three days at the Embassy Suites in La Vista, Nebraska. One of the first speakers was Dr. Lisa Blankenau, a psychologist in Lincoln, whose topic was “Parenting Plans.”

Some studies suggest that custody arrangements should have a similar ratio of parental time with the children as they had before the divorce.

That of course falls into the “Biased” category, but also into the “Misleading” one. Yes, there are those studies but they bear no relationship to the reality of children’s well-being after their parents divorce. Giving one parent or the other the same amount of parenting time he/she did during the marriage makes it easy for judges, but has nothing to do with a child’s best interests. Dad may have spent most of his time earning the family’s daily bread, but the child still identifies him as its father and needs his love and care. The child formed attachments to him early in life and for a judge to sharply limit the child’s access to Dad is to do the very opposite of every family court judge’s mission – promoting the best interests of the child.

Blankenau knows about children’s attachments to their parents. Unfortunately, what she told the judges contains one outrageous falsehood that’s clearly designed to marginalize fathers and favor mothers in parenting time orders.

The primary attachment figure should be given priority.

That of course means Mom in almost all cases. The problem being that the science on children’s attachments demonstrates that there’s no “primary attachment figure.” As Dr. Richard Warshak’s 2014 consensus review of the existing literature on children and parenting time clearly stated, there is no hierarchy of children’s attachments to their parents. Not only that, the researcher who originated the idea of a primary attachment eventually abjured the theory. It’s beyond amazing to see judges being taught the opposite of what the science has long shown.

But Blankenau was just getting started. She soon moved on to misrepresenting matters about children’s well-being and whether they should have overnight visits with the non-custodial parent, i.e. Dad. As we know, the science on overnights demonstrates that there should be no restrictions placed on the child having overnight time with its father. Again, Warshak’s consensus report says so explicitly and the “science” disputing same is so shoddily done as to amount to no opposition at all.

So it’s worthwhile to compare what Blankenau told the judges with how Dr. Linda Nielsen described the literature on overnights for kids.

Blankenau on children 0 – 6 months old: “Babies need to learn to trust their caregiver (note her use of the singular noun)… Children need a home base… overnights are not recommended.” (Parenthetical mine.)

Nielsen summarizing the literature on infants aged 0 – 2 years (Shared Parenting, 11/4/14):

In the oldest study (Solomon & George, 1999) 44 infants ages 0 to 2 were only overnighting one to four times a month – often with fathers who went weeks without seeing the infant and who had never lived with the baby’s mother. When compared to the 49 infants who never overnighted, there were no differences in insecure attachment scores or in their interactions with their mothers on a challenging task in the laboratory setting. Even though the overnighting infants, unlike the non-overnighters, had more “disorganized” (cannot be classified) attachments than children in married families, the researchers attributed this to factors other than the overnighting, namely the parents’ violence and their never having lived together. Moreover, the overnighters did not have significantly more disorganized attachments than the non-overnighters.

In case readers might be wondering, nowhere in her discussion of overnights for very young children does Blankenau cite any scientific literature to back up her claims. Given that the best research on the subject found no detriments to even the youngest children spending overnights with their fathers, Blankenau’s frank statement that “overnights are not recommended,” seems to indicate a profound anti-father bias on her part. After all, if overnights with Dad aren’t detrimental, why not let the child have time with its father and vice versa?

For older children – those between 6 months and 3 years old, Blankenau’s message is not only at odds with the science, but with itself. About those kids, she told the judges that “they are beginning to develop secure bonds with significant adults and are aware of the absence of a parent… Overnights may not be appropriate at this stage. Children may have difficulty adjusting to overnights.” Notice that the absence of a parent is cause for concern to the child, but, according to Blankenau, kids shouldn’t see their fathers overnight. And again, Blankenau cites no research to back up her theories.

Nielsen’s summary of the literature paints a wholly different picture.

For the 2- to 3-year-olds, there were no significant differences between the overnighters and non-overnighters in regard to sleep problems, depression, anxiety, aggression, attentiveness, or social withdrawal.

As I said, Blankenau isn’t content with being wrong on the science and not citing any for her assertions, she’s also seemingly at odds with herself. For example, she says things like “attachments are critical,” but opposes children’s formation of them with their fathers by opposing overnights when there’s no empirical reason for doing so. Of 6 – 18 month-olds, she says they “may become increasingly fearful of separation, strangers and nightmares.” And yet she wants to make Dad more of a stranger by refusing the child overnights with him.

Of course Blankenau’s prose is scrupulously gender neutral. She never substitutes “mother” for “primary caregiver,” or identifies the parent without overnight care as “father.” But no one is deceived. Everyone with even a passing knowledge of family courts can translate her language and surely Blankenau has considerably more knowledge than that. She’s doubtless fully aware that, by discouraging judges from ordering overnights, she’s keeping children in mothers’ care and denying them the care of their fathers.

And my guess is that that point of view, more than anything, is what recommended her to the powers that be who decide who educates family court judges and who doesn’t. Actually, that’s considerably more than a guess on my part.

More on that tomorrow.

 

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