B’ham Network – shared parenting

Posted on June 25, 2012 by

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by Robert Whiston FRSA

Unseen and largely unheard, a group of academics have been discussing shared parenting. Funded by the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council), the group’s latest meeting was at Birmingham University on 3rd Jan 2012 and discussed post-separation families and shared residence. [1]

From the Table below it is clear that the subject of shared parenting has gripped academia as never before. There were university representatives not only from law Depts. but philosophy and ethics in attendance.

The academic network created to examine the viability and advantages meet under the title of “Post-Separation Families and Shared Residence: Setting the Interdisciplinary Research Agenda for the Future.”

While the background and driving force remains unclear at present, it is obvious that the network has managed to attract interest from overseas (see Table 1).

The usual mixture of angels and villains are in evidence with Mavis Maclean representing the dark side and Adrienne Burgess of the Fatherhood Institute (formerly Fathers Direct), the less than dark side.

From over 70 names on the extended list of participants only three or four can be said to be ‘on the side of the angels‘: Lyn Chesterman and Jan Fry of the Grand-parents’ Association and Beck Jarvis of FNF (Families Need Fathers).

The almost total absence of men and male delegates in a father-centric subject is nothing short of stunning.

The Jan 2012 meeting of the AHRC Network was its third gathering to which the above Table refers. The topic was the examination of post-separation families and shared residence. Delegates heard Professor Steve McKay, Social Policy Dept at the University of Birmingham, focus on international comparative perspectives on shared parenting and exploring the longitudinal element of tracing some families over time.

Gold dust

Prof. McKay began by reminding his audience that there is currently little international comparability as countries have done things in very different ways.

International comparisons are not easy especially when one considers the many form of relationship possible in a host of countries and the definition required for ‘family’ and ‘children.’

McKay was right to point out to his audience, as this author has done many times over, the inherent dangers of relying on studies that too often tend to be small-scale, generally under 100 families. He warned of the dangers of trying to generalise from such studies and pointed to the difficulties of trying to base policy on relatively small and, in many cases, old studies – all factors that are readily endorsed by this blog.

Unfortunately, McKay then pointed to the differences in perspective taken by Linda Nielson in her 2011 review and the authors of the recent Oxford Family Policy Briefing Paper 7 (Fehlberg, Smyth, Maclean and Roberts, 2011). He should have underlined the point that Fehlberg, Smyth, Maclean and Roberts, focus on ‘high-conflict’ families which is applicable to only a tiny majority whereas the Neilson review dealt with normal or ‘low conflict’ families which are by far the greater majority, i.e. 90% or more. Appearing to give them equal weight was a disservice.

What was revealing was the basis of the survey he cited. Below they are listed as three components:

  1. In respect of question coverage, past relationships were considered where they had lasted at least three months.
  2. Parents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with questions such as: if parents divorce is it better for the child to stay with the mother or the father ?
  3. How often each parent sees the child and with whom did the child stay in the first year following separation ?

Prof. Steve McKay pointed to how few parents said (conceded ?) that their child was shared between them. This is no surprise since the earlier Uni. of York Interim Study (Bradshaw, Stimson, Williams & Skinner) into CSA payments and Non-Resident Parents (fathers) showed that few parents, i.e. mothers, claimed payments were made fully and on time and that NRP contact visits were low. [2]  Bradshaw compared these results with the answers from fathers and found mothers were (for monetary gain reasons) significantly under-reporting both amounts.

McKay said that in Germany, for instance, only around 2% of respondents with a past child-bearing relationship had mentioned time-shared arrangements. In Russia, the figure was less than 1% (though one can’t help but think, in the case of Russia, this is the result of the Soviet cultural legacy and in the case of Germany, legal norms set down decades ago, i.e. after the upheavals following WWII).

By contrast, in France, Belgium and Norway these figures were substantially higher,at around 7%, 12% and 13% respectively. While Norway stands out as having a high degree of shared care, Austria and Germany do not (see Table 2).

However, before moving on it has to be noted that the Generations and Gender Survey (GGP), run by the UN and to which McKay is referring incorporates ‘relationships’ that had lasted at least three months. Is three months enough to give guidance us sound on this subject ? Even if less than 50% lasted less than 3 months it would unduly influence any conclusion reached.

Similar reservations arise in the 2nd and 3rd conditions of questions asked. Are they asking cohabitees to comment on married couples or about other cohabiting couples ? Where, i.e. ‘with whom, did the child stay in the first year following separation’, is a superfluous question and a ‘no brainer’ for anyone who has been divorced. The first year is always spent with the mother since the mother in 80% of cases initially leaves the marital home taking the children with her (when fathers do this it is called kidnapping). In 90% of these cases the children stay with the mother throughout a). the divorce proceedings and b). ancillary relief hearings, which will take at least one to two years to complete if there are no complications ?

To rely on this as some sort of guide is therefore a wasted exercise.

McKay discussed the big gulf between Norway, Belgium and France compared to Austria and Germany in terms of fertility, with higher birth rates of between 1.8 and 2.0 in the former countries compared with just 1.4 in both Germany and Austria.

Belgium, France and Norway have extensive family policies in place and McKay suggested that possible reasons for these differences could be differences in attitude towards the role of women and roles around childcare and work. However, one has to conclude that this is highly unlikely as a driving force or pivotal reason. Birth rates all over Europe are falling and in the case of the UK the emphasis now is on a primary payment for the first child and lesser payments for 2nd and 3rd children (the reverse of the 1945 – 50 era and the ‘bulge years’).

With no data easily available about  the prevalence of shared parenting McKay used a mixture of European and Nordic countries as examples to give a tantalising pattern of what was beginning to emerge re: shared parenting in Western Europe (see Table 2).

McKay pointed to other less cited studies such as the Northern Ireland‘Life and Times Survey’, which asks children themselves who they live with. Interestingly, reports of shared care were higher when children were asked (compared with their parents). [3] This would seem to underscore the persistent in-built bias first noted in 1997 when asking parents, i.e. mothers.

  • “McKay pointed to how few parents said that their child was shared between them. In Germany for instance only around 2% of respondents with a past child-bearing relationship had mentioned time-shared arrangements.”

McKay discussed other studies such as the BHPS that follow people over time. He explained that not only were there very few 50-50 arrangements but that these patterns of care would generally reduce over time. But by the same token the true extent of ‘cohabiting’ was not known in the 1980s simply because the question was not listed by the ONS in the Family Expenditure Survey until 1990:

  • Quote:- In addition, the criteria for identifying a lone parent with dependant children as a distinct ‘benefit unit’ changed.  Thus, in 1989, a lone parent who was co-habiting and who did not consider [herself] as though married was treated as a lone parent benefit unit (and the cohabiting partner was treated as another, one person, benefit unit).

In contrast, in both 1990 and 1991, all lone parents who said they were cohabiting were treated as belonging to a two-adult benefit unit, that is the lone parent and his/her cohabiting partner were assigned to the same benefit unit.” –FES, Population Trends.

Thus statistics based on the Family Expenditure Survey (FES) fluctuate between 1989 and 1991 as the basis of the survey was changes with questions added or refined.

The Families and Children Study (FACS) (2002-8) asked children from age 11 about contact with non-resident parents (NRPs). [4]  The FACS interviews comprised of one hour-long interview with the main respondent (typically the mother figure in the household) and a 20 minute partner interview. The study was undertaken in waves with the first wave sample being of 4,659 cases reaching a zenith of 8,057 cases in wave 3 and then dipping in Wave 10 to 5,888 cases.

It appears from the FACS results that the younger the child the more contact they have, and the older the child the less contact they have. In addition, where children saw their NRP most often their parents were mostly ‘well-off’ while those who never saw their NRP were poorest.

Contact arrangements generally declined over time, with the most stable arrangements being those where children are seeing both parents at least once a week

As regards the first point (the younger the child), one might assume that very young children have little say in whether they see their father or not, but by the time they reach 11, or thereabouts, they may either be fed up of the adult bickering or ‘badmouthing’ that they prefer to choose the quiet life. Alternatively, they might have fallen prey to PAS.

Frequency of visits is only to be expected given that IQ and educational attainment play a role in ‘expected behaviour’ and the distinction endorses that found in 1986 Law Commission study on what was then called ‘joint custody’.[5]

Unfair Question ?

Probing a child’s mind and asking for a child to make an adult assessment is fraught with difficulties. So it came as a surprise that McKay should include such information.

Apparently, the children are asked a series of self-completion questions at age 11; most were a series of ‘smiley’ faces that graduated down to ‘sad’ faces with a little tear used to measure one supposes an extreme.

McKay misleadingly terms the resulting answers as ‘outcomes’ when in fact they are more likely to be perceptions.

For example, in response to asking how well their parents get on (as if children at that age really know), 20% replied that they ‘did not know’ or ‘could not say’. This ‘fact’ is explained away as perhaps their parents did not actually see each other so it wasn’t possible to tell whether or not they got on. That is a little to vague to leave their or be comfortable with its reliability.

A further 15% said their parents were ‘very unfriendly towards each other’. but 13% & 28% said that their parents were very friendly or quite friendly respectively.

According to children the friendly to quite friendly range embraces over 60% of responses compared to the unfriendly of only 15%.

Children were also asked, he said, how happy they were with their family and with their life in general.[6]

  • The happiest in both cases were those from intact families.
  • For non-intact families there was little difference between children who had daily, weekly or no contact with their NRP (57%, 57% & 58% respectively).
  • In terms of the latter, there was little difference between those who saw their NRP daily or never (40% & 38% respectively) but the least generally happy children were the ones who saw their NRP infrequently i.e. once a year or less than once a year, respectively 30% and 27%.

What is surprising is that given the already accepted view that children are better off with both parents, no query was raised about the non-intact families results of 57%, 57% and 58%. The two concepts clash and one must, therefore, be fictitious or unreliable.

McKay discussed other studies such as the BHPS that follow people over time. He explained that not only were there very few 50-50 arrangements but that these patterns of care would generally reduce over time.

He also pointed to ‘contact’ arrangements generally declining over time, with the most stable arrangements being those where children are seeing both parents at least once a week.

McKay ended by outlining a ‘model’ of outcome, which can be found on the website link to his presentation. There was a significant link between outcomes and the relationship between parents. This had a bigger impact than the amount of “contact.”

Critique

Does this put McKay in the “quality is best” camp rather than the “quantity is best” camp. The argument not touched on is that without sufficient time (quantity) ‘quality time’ is unlikely to bear fruit and thus disadvantage the child.

To gauge where McKay stands on fatherhood issues his reply to a question from Jan Lyngstad, of Statistics Norway regarding the differences in terms of parental leave across the EU is interesting. In Norway, for example, there are quotas for both the mother and the father, with the possibility of being able to choose to which McKay replied that:

  • “ . . . . he was not a big fan of sharing approaches, since fathers tended not to take it up. Where specific quotas exist, a ‘use it or lose it’ system, then men do take it up.”

Alison Koslowski, from the University of Edinburgh, pointed out at the meeting that no matter how ‘generous’ parental leave pay was claimed to be (especially paternity), the fact was that a two income household was reduced to one income. It would therefore not be considered by many as a real option

And returning to the basic premise, i.e. asking 11 year-olds about ‘contact’ with non-resident parents (NRPs), how at that age can children assess or quantify such relationships or the relationships between their parents in an objective manner ?

They may not be aware of their own fall in standards at school or more leery behaviour (US ‘acting out’). They certainly will not know that by the age of 20 they will feel a void they cannot pin down and a lack of identify or belonging. Time and again we find this thirst only sated by seeking out their father, getting to know him and finding he is not the ogre portrayed. We see this tendency in its most acute form with children who are adopted. They are obsessed with finding out where they came from, why and how they were adopted.

How does Britain compare with other nations ?

Below is a graphic taken from Population Trends (2010), a statistical journal published quarterly by the ONS. It shows the percentage of “dependent children” that spend time with their father (NRP) to the extent that they are permitted an overnight ‘sleepover’ with their father.

Figure 4 shows that only 18% of children in the survey enjoyed this permission on a weekly basis. Within that 18% category are some children who spend two nights with their father.

Just over 10% were allowed a sleepover once a fortnight. The figures then fall to barely 3% for all other time intervals with 4% only being allowed a sleepover during the school holidays.

  • “For the other durations, the results are; 10% stay overnight at least once a month, 3%atleast once a month, 4% only in the school holidays, 3% once every 3 months, and 4% once or twice a year or less. The remaining 58% of children never stay overnight with their father, i.e. NRP, although in some cases their NRP may stay overnight with them.”

Is this a record to be proud of ?

The above is not to be taken as an overall or total indication of contact arrangements in Britain but rather of those where contact was allowed with their children, 18% had overnight ‘sleepover’ with their father. British statistics, sadly, persist in this habit of fighting shy of giving the full picture and so no proper assessment can be made. It would be nice to say that of the 88,000 children orphaned by the family courts every year 18% of them saw their fathers to the extent listed above – but even that statement may be untrue so unreliable are the basic statistics. Without concrete numbers percentages are meaningless – it might be 18% of 4,000 or 18% of 45,000 – we just don’t know.

It needs to be highlighted that there has been a gross misuse of the term ‘shared parenting’ by commentators and researchers, especially in the last 12 months when Britain is deciding whether to adopt it or not. Some female researchers when sketching out why they are opposed to ‘shared parenting’ are actually – and dishonestly – describing the pitfalls of contact and residence. They can get away with this because if a father is given occasional weekend visits he receives something like 14% of the children time in any given year. This 14 % is deemed a ‘share’ of the parenting time by those female researchers. If mid-week visits are added in the total can rise to 19% or more, and if some of the school holidays are included it can rise still further to around 25% or more. Notwithstanding this, it is still sole-mother-custody, and it is still the fathers being given only contact and the permission to visit his children.

Competing voices

Fran Wasoff input to the debate revolved around the ‘Growing Up in Scotland’ survey (GUS). In this survey no resident parent reported shared residence, although most mothers reported ‘very good’ or ‘fairly good’ relationship with fathers (from this one has to assume that the survey was skewed in favour of female respondees).

The GUS showed a great majority of parents (over 85%) as arranging contact informally themselves with no professional or outside help.

Of the children living with only one parent, 66% had never lived with the other parent.

The claimed predominant picture from the survey data involving population samples is that:

  1. current, stable and fairly frequent contact with NRPs is taking place:
  2. low levels of conflict are being reported in sustaining ‘contact’
  3. ‘contact’ is being informally arranged by the great majority of parents with minimal agency involvement; ‘contact’ patterns are stable over time, and
  4. that shared residence is not statistically detectable from population samples

All this, Wasoff suggested, meant that focusing research on shared residence was misplaced.

The 2012 focus on shared residence/ shared parenting is prompted by huge dislocations and failures within the present system. Wasoff must be blind and deaf to what is happening in the real world (or clinging on to an ideology).

Tim Loughton, the Minister for Children said in a Radio 4 interview (June 13th 2012) that every year up to 87,000 of children are involved in Contact/Residence applications and up to 1/3 of these children lose contact with their NRP,” ie father.

This level of “orphaning” has not altered much over the recent years, for instance, The Times (Feb 5th 2005) reported that:

  • “An estimated 88,000 children aged under 5 were affected by the separation of their unmarried parents in 2003, compared with about 31,000 children under 5 whose married parents divorced, the research concludes.”

Additionally, three-quarters of all family breakdowns affecting young children now involve unmarried parents. These findings indicated that family breakdown was no longer driven by divorce, but by the collapse of unmarried partnerships. [7] Worse, these unions (unlike spousal unions) would be unlikely to go to court for arbitration on ‘residence’ – all an unmarried father could do would be to apply for parental responsibility, which might not always be granted.

In all probability, children of these un-wed unions would be denied the right to see their fathers in a shared parenting environment.

These 2005 findings were based on Office for National Statistics (ONS) data on divorce and jointly registered births, together with ONS research on the ratio between breakdown rates for married and unmarried families. What the findings show that it is no longer plausible to fashionably argue that all relationship types were equal. The evidence is irrefutable; unmarried parents are five times more likely to break up than married parents. Divorce is not the major problem any more.

LSE academic, Ms Kathleen Kiernan who can be applauded for much of her work in family breakdown nonetheless rejected, in 2005, the idea of policies to promote marriage.[8] She argued, as Trinder now does in 2012, that the Government’s focus on the child rather than the nature of the parental relationship saying:

  • “There is no strong evidence that encouraging cohabitants to marry will enhance the durability of their union.”

So one suspects this is another ideological stance adopted regardless of what the numbers indicate.

Annika Newnham (University of Portsmouth), then rather countered this view by suggesting that in Swedenshared residence is popular because it suits mothers and that such arrangements give them more ownership over their lives. A point often made by family and fathers group in favour of shared residence.

Not surprisingly Kristin Skjorten, from the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies, said that shared residence was looked on by judges in Norway as a more stable arrangement. However, she then went on to quote from Norwegian research that had found that for 2002 to 2004, around 45 % of parents had changed their care arrangement and therefore, she suggested, arrangements of this kind were in fact unstable (no source cited). Her own research had suggested that 30% of care arrangement had changed from shared residence to one primary carer. For this reason, she suggested that Norwegian family law needed to be ‘confronted’.

She, Kristin Skjorten, then went on to talk about job markets and job flexibility which could disadvantage the divorced population if bound to one place by shared care.

Kristin Skjorten sprung yet another surprise when she floated the idea that if there was a belief that it was futile going to court because the mother always ‘wins.’  This followed Judith Masson’s comment on how struck she was by how, in the GUS survey, so few cases went to court. Skjorten suggested this (always ‘wins’) might provide part of the explanation as to why there were so few cases reported in GUS survey. She then confused matters by adding that this belief might not be reflected in the facts – as her own research indicated that in fact cases were decided roughly evenly (and that the belief by men that women were favoured was baseless. An opinion curiously repeated nevertheless across all of Europe and America).

Another contributor was Dr Robert George from University College Oxford. He pointed out that ‘labels’ do matter to people, not least because having shared residence could equip the non-moving (non-resident) parent in providing a more compelling argument not only against the relocation of their child(ren) but in having the child(ren) stay with them as the alternative.

George provided an insight into his own research with trial judges, barristers, solicitors and court welfare officers/psychologists in England & Wales and New Zealand. He explained that in New Zealand there was a trend against relocation. In the main this was due to a lack of guidelines and a limited number of Family Court Judges – there being just 35 in New Zealand (Pop’n 4½ m).

Ironic Twist

In the present debate about the pros and cons of shared parenting, fathers and fathers’ groups have been accused of putting their own selfish human rights ahead of children rights. At first blush this might look as if it has traction but fast forward one generation and those children whose lies will have been dictated by court judgments will find themselves impotent to influence their divorce and child custody case because of the CBI mantra.

And it is surely hypocrisy for radical feminists and false piety for academics, such as Sonia Harris-Short (Uni. of Birmingham Law School), to suggest that the current “welfare approach” which controls custody awards, i.e. CBI, suffered from a distinct lack of focus on the impact on ‘the carer’, i.e. the mother. [9] In her view:

  • ‘Carers should have a place within the process’

To have that place in the process would require the human rights of mothers not to be marginalised she insisted – and fathers, are they not constantly marginalised ?

Are fathers not always berated for having the nerve to ask for their feeling to be considered in custody awards ?

In the interview (on 13/6/12), with minister Tim Loughton and referred to above it was Prof Liz Trinder who put the oppositions view. She told listeners that (paraphrased):

  • “ . . . . the beauty of the CA is a clear simple piece of legislation and that it just focuses on what is going to be right for this child, that’s the only consideration for the court and once you start adding in new principles it only diminishes the focus for the child and whats going to work for that child. Until now we have had our entire focus on whats best for the children.”

But is that really true ? We have not had our entire focus on the child, it has been diverted to accommodate the wants of the mother as has been demonstrated here and underscored by the Regents Park conference of Nov 2001.

There are very few fathers who would agreed that the Children Act 1989 is beautiful and a clear simple piece of legislation

 

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[1] AHRC Network, ‘Post Separation Families and Shared Residence: Setting the Interdisciplinary Research Agenda for the Future.’

[2] See also “Non-Resident Fathers in Britain”, Bradshaw, Stimson, Williams & Skinner, Uni. of York, SPRU. 1997

[3] See ‘Life and Times Survey’ Northern Ireland

[4] Details can be found at University of Essex. http://www.esds.ac.uk/findingData/snDescription.asp?sn=4427

[5]  Most joint custody awards of 25% or more of all awards were to be found in the SE and the London area, with the Midlands being about 15% –  20% and only the North having joint custody not greater than 15%.

[6] ‘Families and Children Study’ (FACS) (2002-8) Essex Uni

[7] “Unmarried families are more likely to fall apart”, The Times, Feb 5th 2005, (Bristol Community Family Trust) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1471297,00.html

[8] See for instance “The Legacy of Parental Divorce” by Kathleen Kiernan CASE, 1997. Quote  “…. dissolution will impact psychologically on any children – even of the tenderest ages.”.

[9] See Stephen Gilmore’s 2001 paper “A Critical Perspective on the Welfare Principle”, about custody, ‘welfare’ and the welfarism arguments re: custody https://motoristmatters.wordpress.com/category/robert-whiston/

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