Here’s some rare good news about our Family Court system. Fewer dads with very young children are being denied overnight care of their infants and toddlers.
That’s a very big deal because up to three years ago most fathers lost out when they went to court seeking any overnight care. Lawyers used to joke they’d been “McIntoshed” - a reference to Jennifer McIntosh, the woman whose one study led to fathers all over the world missing out on those precious early years of fathering their children.
Jennifer McIntosh is a Victorian psychologist who was the lead author in a hugely influential study which concluded that any regular overnight care by fathers was damaging to infants and toddlers. McIntosh promoted this position across the world – men’s groups in Israel threatened to sue her after she campaigned in their country against shared parenting.
Then came the game-changer. In 2014 Richard Warshak, a psychiatry professor who’s also an international authority on parental alienation, brought together 110 leading international experts who signed a consensus report which concluded the McIntosh position was deeply flawed, with the researchers shown to have cherry-picked and exaggerated their results to draw “unwarranted conclusions from the data.”
The consensus report provided solid research evidence that in normal circumstances children are likely to do better if they have regular overnight contact with both parents and that depriving young children of overnights with their fathers could compromise the quality of developing father-child relationships.
Another important paper was published at much the same time by Wake Forest professor of adolescent and educational psychology Linda Nielsen who used the McIntosh study as an example of what she called “woozling” –the process of misrepresenting and disseminating data in ways that mislead the public and policy makers. Her 17 page critique exposed the many flaws in the McIntosh study and concluded it should never have been used to influence courts nor drive social policy.
I wrote about all this at the time – my article in The Age finally appeared after numerous legal threats from McIntosh. After publication I heard from fathers all over Australia who’d been McIntoshed and often struggled to establish meaningful relationships with their children after years of virtually being excluded from their lives.
I talked to one man, a Sydney academic who’d been the principal carer for their infant for much of the first year after marital separation due to his wife’s work commitments. Then his ex-mother-in-law arrived in Australia and suddenly he found himself in court fighting for any overnight care. He was McIntoshed and denied any overnights for years of his young child’s life.
The stories were just extraordinary and the whole situation quite farcical because everyone knew many of these mothers were allowing all sorts of people to care for their children overnight – from babysitters, to relatives or even highly unsuitable boyfriends. The only person being denied this role was the father.
The Warshak Report was translated into 18 languages and changed the way courts across the world now deal with such custody matters – in countries including the UK, Canada, Israel, Finland, Romania, Croatia, and Sweden. It’s shocking how influential McIntosh’s mischief had been up to that time.
Finally even McIntosh changed her position, after being influenced by persuasive colleagues to agree to a slightly more nuanced approach. Of course she now claims she never promoted a ban on all overnights for pre-schoolers – yet there’s plenty of written documentation contradicting that statement.
In a discussion paper for the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH) in 2011, McIntosh wrote that: “Regardless of socio-economic background, parenting warmth or cooperation between parents, the shared overnight care of children less than four years of age had a significantly negative impact on the emotional and behavioural well-being of the child. Babies under two years who lived one or more overnights a week with both parents were significantly stressed.”
The same year she also wrote a guest editorial for The Family Court Review which included the following summary: “Repeated overnight stays away from the primary caregiver in the first year or two may strain the infant and disrupt formation of secure attachment with both parents. Overnight stays away from the primary caregiver in early infancy are generally best avoided unless of benefit to the primary caregiver.”
Hopefully such dangerous nonsense is no longer party line in our Family Court system.
Judges and lawyers now tell me that reasonable dads usually are being given some overnight care even with infants, and there are signs that the number of nights now tends to increase more rapidly. It would be great to hear from dads, family lawyers and others with recent experience in the family law system as to whether that’s actually the case.
Of course there are still the Mummy judges sticking firmly to the McIntosh line, allowing dads only daytime contact with pre-schoolers – which is particularly shocking given that research continues to be published showing the importance of both parents being actively involved in children’s lives from a very young age.
So please send me your comments and stories (firstname.lastname@example.org). Richard Warshak is soon to publish a follow-up to his consensus report and it would be nice to have news from the coalface in Australia to add to the reporting when that comes out.