Shared Parenting Policy – Leaving it to the Wombles


Yesterday yet another piece of research hit the headlines supporting that post-separation shared parenting better supports child welfare and child mental health when compared to sole-residence arrangements. The Swedish study looked at the experiences of 4,684 children and concluded that children do better psychologically when post-separation residence arrangements are shared, and both parents substantively involved in their children’s upbringing.

The article in the Guardian states that 40 academic studies now confirm the positive benefits of shared parenting. We provide download versions of a fair number of these on our Shared Parenting Research page.

So why do shared residence arrangements remain a rarity in the UK, accounting for 9-12% of post separation, court ordered arrangements?

Politicians, judges, civil servants and quangos are misinformed and presented with biased findings by lobbying groups who rely upon flawed and often discredited research. This isn’t a new phenomena.

The Neale/Smart 2003 Study

From 2003, policy became influenced by a study entitled ‘Drifting Towards Shared Residence’.¹ This small study looked at the experiences of 30 teenagers and young adults subject to rigid 50/50 arrangements. It was often incorrectly cited as calling into question the benefits of shared residence. In the detail, the authors accepted their report title and terminology was confusing given the study was not about shared residence but the experiences of a few teenagers and young adults, only some of whom were unhappy. As anyone with any involvement in family law will know, shared residence doesn’t mean a 50/50 split of time.

Small sample sizes and inadequate or entirely absent control groups make research like this meaningless.  We make no criticism of the authors, who said the findings couldn’t be considered conclusive, yet their findings were routinely cited (or misquoted) as justification for sole residence arrangements being more desirable.

Despite the flaws in the research, the likes of Mike Hinchliffe, Deputy Director of CAFCASS, would cite the findings in support of his own views of post-separation parenting arrangements when The Children (Contact) and Adoption Bill and the President’s Private Law Programme were in discussion in 2005. This despite the meta-analytic review published in 2002 by Bauserman which confirmed the positive benefits of shared parenting.

The Norgrove Family Justice Review

Rather than criticising this highly influential review which shaped more recent family law reform, I’ll leave this to Professor Parkinson of the Sydney Law School. The Norgrove review advanced criticism of Australian Family Law reform which promoted the ‘meaningful’ involvement of both parents in a child’s life within post-separation arrangements. The Norgrove Review was critical of shared parenting. Were the claims accurate? The following quote is taken from Professor Parkinson’s speech at the Palace of Westminster in 2012:

“In its final report, the Norgrove Committee relied very heavily on what it understood to be the Australian experience. However, analysis of the evidence that the Norgrove committee used in support of its arguments reveals a very surprising conclusion. Almost none of the claims made by the Norgrove Committee, or which were made to it and relied upon by the Committee, can be sustained.”

The word ‘meaningful’ was subsequently dropped from what became the Children and Families Act 2014, and a desire for involvement of both parents was further watered down to specify that involvement could be satisfied by indirect contact. A card once a year?

An opportunity to improve outcomes for children was missed, either because the Committee failed to double check what it was told, was biased, or lacked competency. Not a great basis upon which to base child welfare policy and law.

Lobbyist backed Pseudo Attachment Theorists

More recently we have the hullabaloo over the book of retired psychologist Penelope Leach ‘Family Breakdown’. The proceeds from the book sale went to The Mindful Policy Group, lobbyists who describe the book’s contents as “…brilliantly incisive”. Really? The book is endorsed on the lobbying group’s website by Sir Paul Coleridge, a retired judge, but their promotional literature fails to mention the report ‘Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report” which debunks Penelope Leach’s claims. You might be forgiven for questioning whether it’s simply one expert disagreeing with another, but the author of the consensus report has his conclusions endorsed by 110 academics and practitioners (these are listed in his report).

To put it succinctly, Ms Leach’s claim that a single night away from mum can damage the brain development of children under 5 has as much scientific credibility as claims that Darwin got it wrong about evolution. We may scoff at those who want our politicians to have creationism taught in schools as a science, but in terms of child welfare policy, ours continues to be influenced by similarly questionable and unscientific beliefs with politicians and judges influenced to promote such oddities.

On the criticism of Ms Leach’s work, people should always have a right to reply, so we’ve included the link below where Penelope Leach has such criticisms put to her on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour:

Leach relies upon a single study from Australia (McIntosh et al, 2010). That study bears similarities to the 2003 Neale study, in that McIntosh’s sampling methodology received considerable criticism from her peers. The sample was too small to produce any conclusions, while other, robust research discredits the claims she made.

Indeed, claims such as those advanced by Leach receive parody and ridicule among members of her peer group, who coined the phrase ‘Woozles‘. If the word Woozle reminds you of Womble [as it does me], perhaps this is because both collect rubbish. If that seems overly harsh, so is the risk that comes with such rubbish, as despite the negative publicity that Leach’s book received, you still have the arguments against overnights for under 5s peddled in the family courts (I’ve heard it being raised within the last week) by parents who wish to use contact as a weapon to punish their ex-partners. Easily defeated by those with the knowledge, but not all have it and at best it causes unnecessary stress, at worse it significantly impacts on a child’s relationship. Yes, attachment is important, but attachment to both parents. When children are denied ‘meaningful’ contact, which includes overnights, attachment is a casualty and child/parent bonds suffer. In addition to the harm done to children’s relationships, should parents have dictated to them pseudo science which implies that any mother or father who leaves their child with a grandparent potentially inflicts brain damage? Pile on the guilt despite there being no evidence to support it.

The word woozle was used in Linda Nielsen’s paper, published by the American Psychiatric Society in 2014. She explains:

In the international debates on custody law reform and in individual custody decisions in families and in courts worldwide, social science research is often misused and abused. In this article I describe the process by which data can become distorted in ways that steer policymakers, family court personnel, and parents off course in regard to child custody decisions. I illustrate this process with a recent study that has garnered international attention and influence.²

Are people really influenced by such things? The Mindful Policy Group is chaired by the ex-Parliamentary Under Secretary for Children and Families, Tim Loughton, who held the role from 2010 until September 2012. In 2014, despite the criticism of Penelope Leach’s theory by over 100 other experts in her field, that lobbying group was holding an event at the House of Commons with Ms Leach as a speaker and inviting members of the judiciary and MPs to come and be influenced. God help us… a Woozling convention.

¹  Drifting Towards Shared Residence. Neale et al. 2003

² Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans, and Family Court. Linda Nielson. American Psychological Association 2014, Vol. 20, No. 2, 164–180