March 16, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
When I first opened this article, at the bottom of the page there appeared a highlighted box with the title “When Disinformation is Rampant…” (Guardian, 3/5/20). To me it read like the punchline to a good joke; I literally laughed out loud. Of course the box is The Guardian’s way of trying to drum up donations for its rapidly declining brand, but, given the article that preceded it, it was hilarious. That article, by Guardian editor Sonia Sodha, is as good an example of disinformation as you’re likely to find. Sadly, the box – and the punchline - now seem to be gone.
The title says it all – “The idea that family courts are biased against men is a dangerous fallacy.” After that, those of us who toil in the family court reform vineyard know what’s coming, and Sodha doesn’t disappoint. First she denies that family court outcomes disproportionately treat fathers worse than mothers. More on that later. Next she claims (of course she does) that, when mothers allege domestic violence by fathers, the fathers are given custody. And finally we’re informed that parental alienation syndrome is “junk science.”
In short, Sodha repeats the usual talking points the anti-dad crowd have been relying on for years. Nothing new here.
So, let’s return to that first point, i.e. that really fathers get an even break in family courts.
[A] review of published court decisions found that they promote as much contact as possible with fathers, even in cases of proven domestic violence.
Notice the weasel words “as much contact as possible.” That of course can mean anything. Is one day per year of contact between a father and his child all that’s “possible?” If so, the court did its job, according to Sodha, if no one else.
But her real dishonesty comes from her use of the link. It’s to a study conducted by Profs. Maebh Harding and Annika Newnham of the universities of Warwick and Reading respectively. I posted about that study here and here when it first came out in 2015. Put simply, it gives the lie to anyone who claims fathers in the U.K. get an even shake from family court judges.
Harding and Newnham want to convince readers that courts treat fathers and mothers equally, so they resort to a couple of remarkable intellectual conceits to accomplish the task. First, they look at what fathers and mothers ask for in family courts and compare that to what the courts order. That would be sensible except that their definition of “success” in court, i.e. the court’s ordering something requested, is so absurdly broad as to guarantee them their preferred finding.
So, if Dad asks the court for 50/50 parenting time and the court gives him every other weekend, according to Harding and Newnham, he won. According to Dad and most sensible people, he lost, but not to the two researchers. The fact that the fathers in their study got any form of overnight contact with their kids in fewer than half the cases qualifies as “success” according to the authors. Here’s a piece I wrote on that and that links to an excellent article by Glen Poole eviscerating Harding and Newnham’s work.
Second, the two researchers quite honestly note that, on the occasions when dads get sole or primary custody, it’s because Mom is clearly unfit for the job due to a variety of shortcomings such as mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, incarceration, violence, etc.
As highlighted in Chapter 2, there was a clear correlation between the presence of very serious child welfare concerns and applications by fathers for residence orders. 26 out of 32 applications by fathers for residence orders featured alleged child welfare concerns. There was what we classified as significant Local Authority involvement in 15 of these cases. This included 10 cases in which the fathers sought residence orders on the advice of the Local Authority who had placed the child with them and 4 cases where the fathers sought residence at their own initiative but the Local Authority approved of the proposal.
In short, Harding and Newnham’s (and now Sodha’s) claim that fathers are treated equally in custody cases founders on the researchers’ own findings. Fathers dared to seek custody only when they knew they had an almost certain probability of winning. They were so certain that, in 15 of the 26 cases, local authorities basically told them they needed to have the child.
So the claim that fathers succeed well in family courts is entirely an artifact of the methodology used by Harding and Newnham. They “define” “success” so broadly that almost anything can qualify and clearly state, but then refuse to notice, the selection bias of their own study.
Needless to say, Sodha isn’t interested anything that would contradict her thesis, so she ignores the facts that make the Harding/Newnham data a nullity as regards equality in family courts.
But Sodha is far from done. More on that next time.