The Emperor’s New Clothes
This is the final chapter, I am sorry to say, timed to coincide with the introduction of the Children and Families Act. It has been very rewarding to write, and I am very grateful to my readers for following and commenting.
Until the services to support separating families are reconfigured around the needs of both parents, until we accept that children benefit from meaningful relationships with their mothers and fathers and until we end the ridiculous stereotyping of men and women in our family services, presuming shared care or not, will not change a thing.
Karen Woodall (Woodall, 2011)
Bowlby’s theory of maternal monotropy which is used to justify the family courts’ doctrine of the primary carer has been challenged; research shows that fathers bond with their children soon after birth (Greenberg & Morris, 1974). Maternal skills are not instinctive but are learned through observation and practice (Newson, 1974). Michael Lamb (who studied under Mary Ainsworth) and Joan Kelly reported that—
considerable evidence now exists… that documents that most infants form meaningful attachments to both of their parents at roughly the same age (6 to 7 months). This is true even though many fathers in our culture spend less time with their infants than mothers do (Kelly & Lamb, 2000).
They also observed, ‘The preference for the primary caretaker appears to diminish with age, and by 18 months, this preference often has disappeared’,
Although much has been made of research showing that mothers and fathers have distinctive styles of interaction with their infants, the differences are actually quite small and do not appear to be formatively significant… The benefits of maintaining contact with both parents exceed any special need for relationships with male or female parents.
Kelly and Lamb concluded,
If the parents lived together prior to separation… the central challenge is to maintain both infant-parent attachments after separation… when parents have never lived together, and the infant has had no opportunity to become attached to one of the parents, as is common while paternity is being established legally, special efforts are needed to foster the development of attachment relationships.
In Maternal Deprivation Reassessed, Sir Michael Rutter repudiated Bowlby’s opinions, showing the importance of a child’s relationships with people other than his mother, and contradicting the idea that deprivation is damaging (Rutter, 1981). He disentangled the various kinds of retardation suffered by children brought up in institutions showing that the effects observed in children, including intellectual and physical retardation, language problems, and anti-social behaviour, are due as much to the lack of stimulation and social experience associated with lack of attachment as to the lack of attachment itself, and distinguishing between failure to develop an attachment, separation from an attached figure and loss of an attached figure.
Schaffer and Emerson showed that babies react to whichever adult responds most sympathetically to their needs, and can form multiple attachments, becoming as attached to their fathers as they are to their mothers; by 18 months few infants (13%) were attached to only one person and some had five or more attachments (Schaffer & Emerson, 1964). The sensitive parent sees things from the child’s perspective, interprets the signals it makes, responds to its needs and is cooperative and accessible. The insensitive parent interacts in terms of her own wishes, needs and moods; babies do not attach securely to insensitive mothers and become anxious. Where a father is the parent responding most sensitively to the child, attachment to him can be stronger. Milton Kotelchuck showed that some year-old infants are more attached to their fathers than to their mothers (Kotelchuck, 1976). This shows parenting to be a skill which fathers can acquire equally, given the necessary opportunity and motivation.
Attachment is a two-way process: babies respond to their parents’ attention, but parents also are influenced by their babies, and interact less with sick or premature babies or with babies with disabilities such as visual loss. Parents whose own childhoods were lacking in affection will interact less, as will stressed or depressed parents. Some mothers, especially young single mothers, see their babies as someone who will give them unconditional love and won’t respond to the baby’s needs, imposing unreasonable demands and unsuitable routines.
Our understanding of infant attachment has been developed further by neuroscientists such as Alan Schore who have shown that the multiple attachments children make form a hierarchy. Most often the mother will be at the top of this hierarchy because she will have been the person who first held and responded to her child. If the father were present at the birth and held the child soon after he will be close to the top of the hierarchy too. In many circumstances it will be the father who is at the top. Other people will be in this hierarchy, as well as inanimate objects, such as teddy-bears and comforters; over time people and objects can be added and the order can change. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel has argued that it is quite possible for two attachments to occupy the same position in a hierarchy, so a child can be equally attached to both parents; he rejects the idea that attachments are gendered in any way. Parents need to understand this, and that the only people who can mediate these attachments between the parents following separation in a way that is manageable for the child are the parents themselves. If parents demand the right to separate – a right which historically most parents have not had – they must also accept that they cannot have it all, and must compromise in order to secure the healthy psychological and intellectual development of their children.
This means enabling children to cross the ‘no-man’s land’ of emotional warfare between their parents. This is a perilous landscape for children and it is easier sometimes for them to reject one parent and align themselves with the other. As Karen Woodall says, while it may be difficult at times, parents only have to deal with the impact of separation or divorce on themselves,
Children, on the other hand, have to cope with both sides and they have to bear witness to the pain, the sorrow and sometimes the anger of two parents, not just one. Not only that, but they must achieve a huge psychological task on a regular basis, which is negotiating their way between enemy lines in order to find their way into the other side’s camp. Little wonder that too many children end up being withdrawing and refusing to undertake that task by rejecting one of their parents.
Few parents understand these transitions from the child’s perspective or have the skills to parent a child in transition; not until they can comprehend the nature of transition can they start to provide the child with the support necessary. Shared parenting may be the best option for children, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still incredibly difficult or that the alternative can sometimes seem appealing. Children are adaptable and resilient, but they will still need support if they are to flourish after separation, and this will depend on the level of their parents’ understanding and sensitivity to their needs.
The evidence further shows that children who are deprived of meaningful relationships with one of their parents are at greater risk psychosocially, even when they are able to maintain relationships with the other parent. Stated differently, there is substantial evidence that children are more likely to attain their psychological potential when they are able to develop and maintain meaningful relationships with both parents, whether they live together or not.
Some commentators have misinterpreted the hierarchical understanding of attachment theory to justify denying contact with the child to all but the primary attachment, thus returning to the monotropy of John Bowlby. Jennifer McIntosh, the Australian academic now notorious for leading the Family Justice Review panel to reject shared parenting, has fastened on Schore’s work and his theory that in the first two years of a child’s life it is the involvement of the mother which triggers the expansion of mirror neurons in the right hand side of a baby’s partially developed brain. After two years it is the father who initiates the development of the left hand side of his child’s brain. This has inspired the argument that children should have no significant time away from their mothers until they are two, A Guide to Contact Arrangements for Children by the Association of Family Court Welfare Officers, for example, doesn’t recommend overnight staying until children are two years old, and then only once a month which must be ‘carefully monitored for any distress to the child’. By the age of three they recommend the occasional two-night stay. This is terrible advice: children who have no overnights with their fathers before the age of three are 27 times more likely to lose all contact (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). Research shows that ‘children below the age of three are able to handle the many transitions in their overnight joint custody arrangements’ (McKinnon & Wallerstein, 1987), while those who spend significant time with their fathers fare better on measures of emotional, psychological and behavioural well-being; Warshak showed that overnight stays can be the norm even for very young children (Warshak R. A., 2014).
McIntosh has been condemned by her peers for focussing on a narrow range of research when a much wider range is available and for generalising from small groups of highly conflicted parents to all separating families (Lamb M. E., 2012). Problems clearly arise in separated families when a child is substantially separated from each parent for considerable lengths of time. Attachments then present serious difficulties for children: the normal hierarchy is no longer accessible and the child is subjected to a whole new set of ‘strange situations’. Karen Woodall perfectly describes the challenges facing separated families and what happens when they and the courts fail to understand attachment theory sympathetically,
We have to find a way to put into practice some kind of support to mothers and fathers to help them to manage the attachment hierarchy on behalf of the child so that the attachment is mediated between the mother and father and grandparents and other attachment figures. The major reason why many parents find themselves in situations where children begin to refuse to see a parent or move from one home to the other is not deliberate alienation on the part of one parent against the other, it is the failure of parents to mediate the attachment and assist the child to move across the transitional bridge between them. The neuroscience tells us that this is because the child cannot tolerate the ‘noise’ in the emotional atmosphere, which is why alienation is akin to a school or nursery phobia. Of course the parent who is at the top of the hierarchy then assumes that the child doesn’t want to go to their father’s home because of something that he is doing. Then conflict erupts between parents and the attachment between the child and the parent that they are struggling to make the change to is weakened by further emotional disturbance and a lessening of the opportunity to continue the empathic connection which is stimulated through regular, consistent routines that match the child’s needs.
Fathers’ groups often cannot get beyond the idea of parental alienation in order to understand this, focusing on a simplistic version of alienation as if it were the only problem, and regarding alienated parents as unimpeachable. This is regrettable: they should take the lead and aim to enable one parent to understand the challenges of the transition bridge, and then to use that understanding to convey it, slowly and compassionately, to the other parent; as Woodall explains,
You use intensive therapeutic mediation and support delivered by people who understand what happens to people who separate and who understand the power imbalances between mothers and fathers; then you focus upon their love and concern for their child and use different levers to apply the pressure that is needed to reorientate them from the conflict to what they have in common.
Disputes over ‘custody, care and control’ are not justiciable; they are not such as can be resolved in the adversarial context of a courtroom. The courts and agencies like CAFCASS have been allowed to dominate the approach to post separation parenting, even for families which do not use the courts but nevertheless act ‘in the shadow of the law’. It is clear that most people disagree with the sole-maternal-residence solution and prefer an alternative, more fairly shared, outcome: opinion polls consistently support shared parenting: a Father’s Day YouGov Poll in June 2012 revealed that 95% of the public believed parents should share responsibility for bringing up their children.
The courts have a role to play, but they should not be at the centre of family justice. The money concentrated within the family justice system or spent on CAFCASS could better be used to fund community-based, relationship-orientated dispute resolution and therapeutic mediation services. Liz Trinder proposed that contact disputes should be reconsidered as public health issues rather than legal ones: if parents are to parent cooperatively a form of remedial intervention is necessary, ‘mediation with a clearly therapeutic orientation and emotionally-informed content can have a profound and enduring impact on relationships… courts could then become very much a last resort when all else has failed or for cases involving allegations of harm (Trinder & Kellett, 2007). The obstacle is the cultural shift required to shift funding away from the courts; Canadian Professor Nicholas Bala says,
The most effective programs for parents require several hours of intervention by skilled professionals; such programs are much better for children and less expensive for society than trials, but they require government investment in resources (Bala, 2014).
These are the sort of services which are provided by small-scale, volunteer-run community groups with enormous success, but they are in competition with and under attack from state-run and local authority services over which the toxic feminist analysis of family breakdown has such a strangle-hold. Parenting is difficult: no one is born knowing how to do it and there is no instruction manual; separated parenting is a hundred times harder. If there is to be any future for family-friendly post-separation support it has to be in these community projects and not in state-provided ones. Sometimes these services need to be robust, taking a no-nonsense approach, for example, to attempts by parents to control each-other; before they start to use the system parents must be made aware of what is expected of them and how they should behave, both towards each other and towards service providers. Strict sanctions of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out variety favoured by Sir Paul Coleridge should be applied to parents who are not prepared to cooperate. These would be backed by a legal presumption in favour of shared parenting within a context of equal parental responsibility. Equality must also be extended to child benefit and child support arrangements. It is the inequality in child benefit distribution which leads to so much other misery. A normal arrangement in which custody is more-or-less equally shared will obviate the need for child support payments, but in cases in which payments are still necessary in order to redress a parenting imbalance, assessment must be made of both parents’ financial circumstances.
The second essential reform is therefore that the law and its systems must recognise that children need both parents and relationships with other family members if they are to develop to their full potential. They must jettison the tired old dogma of the ‘primary carer’ and treat both parents equally. Custody must be allocated in the child’s best interests and not as a reward to whoever did the bulk of pre-separation parenting. We have seen how which parent gets custody of the children determines which parent files for divorce and that sole custody consequently drives divorce; in jurisdictions where shared custody is adopted as the norm the divorce rate falls dramatically.
Today we have an urgent need for a legislation which allows for a wide variety of parenting arrangements and divisions of responsibility; one which allows for the emergence of ‘house-husbands’ and for the growing involvement of fathers in traditionally female parenting roles. Shared parenting is not about men replacing mothers, but about children maintaining a relationship with both parents. The Australian reforms of 2006, though they were not perfect, represented an improvement on what had gone before, but have been criticised for creating a twin track approach: one for cases in which there are welfare concerns, and one for those in which there are not; the UK is making the same mistake. Concerns over violence and abuse should not be treated as a special category: there are many reasons why a parent may be unable to provide adequate care for their child: they may have physical or mental health conditions which make it impossible for them to respond to the child’s needs; the conflict between the parents may be such as to make cooperation impossible; the child himself may have handicaps which make care difficult or force care to take place only in a specially adapted home. All of these factors need to be weighed when what is in the child’s interests is being considered, but none should be allowed automatically to dominate.
The final sine qua non must be for the justice system to be open and accountable. Public confidence has been lost and can be restored only by a fully accessible, transparent and answerable system of justice. Openness will break the omertá which currently obtains in the Family Courts (Cohen, 2005): the conspiracy of silence which has allowed miscarriages of justice to go unobserved and unreported; ‘We cannot afford to proceed on the blinkered assumption that there have been no miscarriages of justice’, said Lord Justice Munby. The various half-measures introduced by successive governments only serve to fuel public unease and distrust of a secret system. There is not a shred of empirical evidence to support the claim that open justice ‘damages’ children.
These fundamental principles are widely shared by the groups which campaign on behalf of parents, free of dogma and ideology, in both private and public family law, and on behalf of mothers as well as fathers. They also feature in proposals for change from those quarters of the family justice system which are honest enough to admit that the system as it stands isn’t ‘fit for purpose’. Government continues to allow the acceleration of family breakdown in the name of ‘lifestyle choice’; it continues to pull away the fabric of families’ safety nets: cutting legal aid and funding for parental support, pouring money into more layers of bureaucracy, providing jobs to collaborators, preaching dangerous untruths and fêting those whose only aim is the destruction of the family.
The end of this terrible regime may come at last simply because the lone parent lifestyle is no longer economically sustainable; no modern state can afford to sustain a large proportion of sole parent families on benefits. The reality is that the married family is far more stable than any other type of relationship and makes a consistent net tax contribution to Treasury coffers. The self-indulgent promotion of alternative lifestyle choices is a luxury affordable only in times of economic glut. The benefits bill now exceeds total income tax receipt and this reckless experiment has ceased to be viable at a time of near economic collapse.
Suffering little children: some of them go for years without their loved attachment figure, and the social workers and CAFCASS watch open-mouthed as these little people fall into their dads’ arms and cry and then go back into playing together as if nothing had happened. One little girl said to her dad a couple of weeks ago, ‘you know, dad, all this was just a big mistake; I didn’t stop loving you, you know’. Two years apart and so many allegations against him, you would not believe it: all dismissed, all shown to be lies, and still the social worker doing the Section 37 report said I was placing the child in danger by doing the reunification straight away. As I said to the dopey-looking middle-aged fool of a woman, ‘this is her DAD, not some random stranger looking to abduct her; watch what happens and learn something’. When the little girl asked her dad to help her tie her shoe laces, as he knelt down she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him, ‘I tricked you,’ she said, ‘I just wanted to give you this big cuddle’. The social worker looked at me and said, ‘what kind of magic are you working with these kids?’ What can one possibly, possibly say to someone who has been indoctrinated and brainwashed and removed from any empathic understanding of the love a child feels for a father and a father for a child (Woodall, 2013b)?
Bala, N. (2014, March 10). ‘Equal time’ for custody of children is a simplistic solution. Toronto Star.
Cohen, N. (2005, January 16). Families denied justice. The Observer.
Greenberg, M., & Morris, N. (1974, July). Engrossment: The newborn’s impact upon the Father. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 44(4), 520-31.
Kelly, J. B., & Lamb, M. E. (2000, July ). Using Child Development Research to Make Appropriate Custody and Access Decisions for Young Children. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 38(3), 297-311.
Kotelchuck, M. (1976). The infant’s relationship to his father: experimental evidence. In M. E. Lamb, The role of the father in child development (pp. 329-344). New York: Wiley.
Lamb, M. E. (2012). A wasted opportunity to engage with the literature on the implications of attachment research for family court professionals. Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.
Maccoby, E., & Mnookin, R. (1992). Dividing the child. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
McKinnon, R., & Wallerstein, J. (1987). Joint custody and the pre-school child. Conciliation Courts Review, pp. 39-47.
Newson, J. (1974). Towards a theory of infant understanding. Bulletin of British Psychological Society.
Rutter, M. (1981). Maternal Deprivation Reassessed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Schaffer, H. R., & Emerson, P. E. (1964). The Development of Social Attachments in Infancy. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 29 (3), serial number 94.
Trinder, L., & Kellett, J. (2007). The longer-term outcomes of in-court conciliation, Ministry of Justice Research Series 15/07. Norwich: University of East Anglia.
Warshak, R. A. (2014, February). Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20(1), 46–67.
Woodall, K. (2011, May 30). Shared Parenting: getting it right for our children. Retrieved from karenwoodall.wordpress.com.
 Taken from a Facebook post, October 2012