dad and toddler

Divorced dads and overnight care of infants and toddlers

My life has been consumed recently by writing, with the help of lawyers,  a very important story – published in The Age late April – about fathers and overnight care of infants and toddlers. Here’s a brief summary of what it’s all about:

Barriers constraining divorced fathers having their young children stay with them overnight may be lifted, with key family law organizations revising policies blocking overnight care of infants and toddlers.

The rethink follows the publication of an academic paper endorsed by 110 leading international experts challenging the policies. The paper is highly critical of a key 2010 study that found any regular overnight care by fathers was damaging to infants and toddlers.

The expert paper says that the 2010 study, led by Melbourne child psychologist Dr Jennifer McIntosh, was inappropriately used to suggest thatany regular overnight care by fathers was damaging to infants and toddlers. ‘‘This study provides no reliable basis to support custody policy, recommendations or decisions,” the Warshak paper found.

Professor Warshak was an ‘‘impassioned advocate’’ seeking to discredit her to further his own political agendas, Dr McIntosh said.

“Those who endorsed Warshak’s careful review paper are not ideologists for men; they simply object to the misinterpretation of data and its misuse in family law policy,” responded Foundation Director of the Australian Institute of Studies, Don Edgar, one of the signatories of the expert paper. Edgar said he was ‘‘disturbed’’ to hear Australian research findings had been used to argue against fathers’ access to, and visiting rights with, young children.

The expert paper concluded infants commonly develop attachment relationships with more than one caregiver and that in normal circumstances children are likely to do better if they have some overnight contact with both parents. It said depriving young children the opportunity to stay overnight with their fathers could compromise the development of father-child relationships.

Already there are signs the new consensus paper could affect current policies. Some key organizations, such as the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health are revising their policies regarding overnight care of infants, as are many of the Family Relationship Centres (FRCs) offering the compulsory mediation required prior to Family Court proceedings.

Sadly, the introduction to the original published story was removed after publication. This featured a father who was struggling, through mediation, to gain more contact with his one-year-old daughter. Lawyers for the ex-wife demanded his story and the photograph of the father and child be removed – despite there being no legal basis for doing so. Here’s the link to The Age website with the edited version of the story:

6 Responses to Divorced dads and overnight care of infants and toddlers

  1. Tim may April 30, 2014 at 1:37 am #

    I heard your discussion with Alex Sloan on 666 today.
    Your candid acknowledgement of the truth about father involvement being clearly in a child’s interest was jaw dropping. Only you it seems have the wisdom to cross the gender divide with empathic concern for the terrible consequence of this policy on men, and so on their children. Your frank honest neutrality restores my faith in the sensibility of women in this critical public debate.
    I was intruiged by your remarks on the questionable motivations of mothers exploiting this policy to damage an estranged spouse. Did I detect an acknowledgement of the potential for parental alienation behavior? Perhaps another pillar of decision based on questionable science that will yet crumble in time.
    In the meantime, I loudly applaud the college of eminents for their resolve to roll this profoundly damaging bias from the legal foundation. Well done folks!!!!!
    We must see how long it takes to trickle through the legal practice into predictable outcomes.
    With my great respect.

  2. Trevor May 8, 2014 at 5:05 am #

    The law should assume 50/50 access the moment one parent leaves unless there is a clear proven case against the parent. At the moment a parent can make the other party guilty first, with the use of only one word, and often leaving the other party to fight to prove innocence.

    • Bettina May 8, 2014 at 10:26 am #

      Trevor, Talk about 50/50 access always sounds as if you are only concerned about equal rights rather than the needs of the child. I am totally in favour of shared care but I think this needs to be worked out in a flexible way, catering to everyone’s needs, including those of the child. When a mother is breastfeeding a baby it may not be possible for the father to initially have overnight care unless she is able to express (which not all women can manage). But there’s no reason why he can’t do all the caring that is often farmed out to other people.. grandmothers, babysitters etc. And it is totally unfair for a mother to extend breastfeeding for years just to deny the father overnight care. If the child is spending any nights at all with other people, there’s no reason why dad shouldn’t have that overnight care as well. It makes no sense for a child to go to babysitters when dad is willing and able to care for the child. My experience watching other parents in this situation is that the children who do best have flexible arrangements that may vary from week to week depending on what’s happening in the lives of both parents – they work together to genuinely share the care to everyone’s advantage rather than sticking to a rigid allocation of hours. I know that when parents are hostile this isn’t possible but I wish mediators would push harder for parents to work together rather than impose blanket rules such as the current ludicrous ban on overnights with young children.

  3. Stephanie Collins May 8, 2014 at 10:04 am #

    Dear Bettina

    How wonderful to hear you talking to Trevor Chappell on the 891 overnight program last night about a topic close to my heart. Only those who have been through the family court system will know of the heartbreak caused by the injustice that occurs for these small children and their fathers.
    A long time admirer of yours, I was so pleased to finally hear some common sense and justice for the children and their fathers who are so poorly treated in the current family court system when it comes to access and overnights.
    To have contact with their father cut off so completely for no real reason (other than to inflict as much pain as possible to the children’s father) is surely doing far more damage to the children, who are being used solely as a tool to punish their father.
    It’s time the children’s needs were really put first, rather than being at the mercy of vengeful mothers.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Joanie Colling May 8, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    Bettina, I have no problem with shared care, and understand how child support arrives at the arrangement of who pays who to equalise their incomes, but who the pays for their school expenses, books, uniforms fees etc, I earn more than my ex partner and pay him each a sum month, but he maintains that I earn more so I can pay, for their immediate needs, including health cover, while he lavishes them with great birthday gifts, parties and outings that I can’t afford, after paying him and all the essential expenses. Apart from the financial strain on me, they think he is Mr Wonderful and I am a meany, so how is this 50/50 fair, look forward to your reply, Joanie

    • Bettina May 12, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

      Oh dear, Joanie. I can quite understand your frustration. It’s always very difficult when one partner is stuck with everyday expenses plus having to support an ex who then spurges money. It happens a lot. I was on the committee that tried to make the child support system fairer and we attempted to give the paying spouse some opportunities to determine what the money would be used for i.e. paying school fees etc. But naturally it is not possible to control all the expenditure and there will always be times when people exploit the situation to buy favour with their children. As your children get older I am sure they will see the situation for what it is and appreciate you are doing all the hard yards whilst their Dad is able to spend money more freely. That’s not much consolation, I know. It’s just so hard to persuade people to actually be fair to each other and not score points by using the children.