This brings us to the nut of the matter in the Final Report of the Australian Law Reform Committee, i.e. its scrapping of the requirement that judges “consider” equal parenting time when parents divorce. If the number of citations to pro-shared parenting documents and commentators is any indication, the committee entirely ignored any input that favors shared parenting. Put simply, there are no citations to literature and no quotations of those on the side of shared parenting.
That’s true despite the fact that the report bemoans the current system as “too adversarial,” which it certainly is, and the detrimental effects of father absence. Needless to say, a presumption of shared parenting would address, if not solve, both problems. The committee is aware of the extreme imbalance in custody between mothers (69.4%) and fathers (under 9%). Although it nowhere mentions it, the committee, composed as it is of a substantial number of lawyers and judges, must know that the current system, as a matter of precedent, refuses to enforce orders for access via the court’s power of contempt. Therefore it must have some inkling of the fact that courts play a big role in the very father absence the report inveighs against.
And yet its recommendation is that even considering shared parenting is so burdensome on judges that it should be removed from the law.
And what of the science on shared parenting?
At a broad level, studies based on population level samples demonstrate that poorer outcomes for children are linked with: financial disadvantage, exposure to inter-parental conflict and family violence, and problematic parenting. There is no strong link between post-separation parenting arrangements (in other words, the amount of time children spend with each parent) and child wellbeing per se.Well, isn’t that clever? By excluding all studies not “based on population level samples,” the committee enables itself to ignore all those smaller, but highly persuasive studies that demonstrate the benefits of shared parenting to children. Plus of course, the statement is simply false. Swedish researcher Malin Bergstrom’s studies include sample sizes of up to 150,000 and they in fact find shared parenting to produce the best educational and psychological outcomes for children except those of intact families.
And what of Paul Millar’s study of the raw data on Canada’s parenting arrangements and children’s outcomes. At the time (2009), it was the only analysis of the data of its kind and it disclosed some remarkable things. Anticipating the very words of the ALRC’s final report, Millar called “spurious” the idea that “less favorable outcomes for children of divorce are due to some external factor, such as lower income or higher inter-personal conflict.”
We might also pause to ask the committee, “When the report refers to ‘financial disadvantage,’ were its authors aware that single-mother-headed households are in fact the most likely of any to live in poverty?” In other words, there’s a lot of overlap between the set of financially disadvantaged households and single-mother-headed ones.
As to the statement that “there’s no strong link” between post-divorce parenting arrangements and child well-being, it’s true as far as it goes. The 60+ studies that show improved outcomes for children with shared parenting do not in fact reveal huge gaps between those kids and others. But the committee’s statement is little more than glib. The reality is that essentially all the well-done science on the issue comes out the same, i.e. favoring shared parenting. Where are the studies with a “strong link” between sole-parent arrangements and improved child well-being? That’s right, there aren’t any.
So, as happens so often, the committee finds the lack of a statistically strong link between shared parenting and children’s well-being to be fatal, while ignoring altogether the entire absence of any study with a strong link of any kind between sole parenting and children’s welfare.
Paul Millar pointed out that the preference for sole parenting “is not only unsupported by evidence, but, worse, appears to promote harmful outcomes for children through the legal support given the destruction of one of the important parental relationships for the child.”
And that’s a real problem because judges invariably order one sort of parenting arrangement or another. They’re not free to simply sit on their hands and wait for more studies to come in. They have to do something. And what they usually do is order sole parenting. They do so in about 78 – 79% of cases. The science on children’s welfare opposes that habit. There is essentially no science that supports it. To the august members of the committee, apparently that’s as it should be.
By now, we should all be asking the question, “How did they get it so wrong?” I asked Australian journalist Bettina Arndt that question. Here’s her response:
The terms of this enquiry had over 200 references to violence and no mention at all of enforcement of contact orders, parental alienation or any of the other relevant issues. They were bombarded with submissions from women’s groups arguing that children need protection from violence fathers and of course most of the cases that make it to court include violence orders, because this is now the major tactic mothers use to gain power in family law disputes. The recommendations reflect that bias and the success of the orchestrated campaign from feminists to wind back Australia’s laws supporting shared parenting. Here’s hoping the government doesn’t cave into this pressure but chances are we will soon see a feminist-captured Labor government and shared parenting will be out the door.