Uncooperative Data

Posted on September 6, 2012 by


Robert Whiston FRSA   03 August 2012 

Repairing a ‘broken society’ was a Conservative Party election pledge. “Cooperative Parenting . . . ” is a new Consultation Paper issued by the coalition government which seeks to make good on that pledge by promoting ‘shared parenting.’

But as always the devil is in the detail and the final form of words will probably dash any vestiges of hope. Semantically, under the present ‘mother-gets-the-lot’ custody regime ‘cooperative parenting’ is the desired but never attainable ideal. Will the advent of shared parenting much heralded back in Jan 2012 become by Dec 2012 merely a play on words where shared parenting is substituted by cooperative parenting ? Will the system continues on it merry way re-badged but untroubled by fathers’ rights, protests and expectations ?

The present system theoretically requires both parents to cooperate but it is fathers and not mothers who, in reality, have to face the excessive demands to comply. Shared parenting is more egalitarian, in sharing care it  would place a lessened onus on both parents. 

If implemented, shared parenting will lift from hard pressed mothers the burden of being solely and exclusively responsible for children 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In every survey ‘lone mothers’ report that they want fathers to be more engaged and that they feel isolated and ‘hemmed in’ by their situation.

This can only reflect the remorseless daily grind they often feel; the sense that their personal time is being overwhelmed and their life ‘put on hold.’ Shared parenting, by requiring fathers to spend more time with and caring for their children, will give mothers not only more quality time but more time generally for themselves and their careers.

Two parents better

Everyone agrees that children raised by two loving parents benefit most and achieve more in all arenas. Even the law pretends to support this very principle by granting sole mother custody and allowing limited visiting rights to the father after a divorce. This ensures that a form of continuing of ‘two parent engagement’ occurs.

However, as our criminal courts bear witness and our prison population attests, young men from fatherless (i.e. sole mother custody) household predominate.

Sleepovers” provide an ideal benchmarking tool to compare how liberal are the different jurisdiction.

Denmark has had shared parenting since the 1980s, and the system is understood by the population and works well. Sleepovers are very normal at the daily, weekly and monthly level.

Denmark exceeds at both ends of the father engagement spectrum where Britain is a dismal failure.

By 1996, 21% of Danish children saw their fathers on a daily basis. In England & Wales it is zero and was still at that level in 2009. At the ‘never see their father’ level only 14% of Danish children experience this whereas according to Population Trends No.140, the figure for England & Wales is over 50% (see Table above).

In one recent ONS survey the data suggests that only 4% of children in England & Wales ‘never’ see their father (Population Trends No 140). At first sight this looks much better than the figure for Denmarkat 14% (see table above). However, the same ONS survey then concedes that 53% of children who do not see their fathers have already been excluded from the data (see brackets in the above Table).

Arguably, other than “sleepover rates” the apportionment of custody between the parents – as occurred prior to the CA 1989 – provides another ideal benchmarking tool. The adjacent Table shows Danish figures from  selected years 1980 to 2001. Both parents shared custody in 81% of instances in 1980 but this figure fell to 75% by 2001. The slack appears to have been taken up by an increase in lone motherhood (9.6% to 13.8%). As all the other columns are fairly static over time this most probably reflects changes in the marital preferences of women, i.e. lone motherhood made easier by the state.

There are some voices in Britain that maintain that somewhere in the region of 9% of children see their fathers on a daily or near daily basis – defined as “at least three days and nights per week with each parent.” The source for this is the 2008 Gingerbread report written by Victoria Peacey & Joan Hunt and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.[1]  (In 2009 a much shorter report with a sample size of 41 was culled from the 2009 data and supplied to government).

The Gingerbread report also came to the conclusion that shared parenting amounted to 17% in Britain but since the report was never intended to measure shared parenting only difficulties with sole custody and ‘contact’, not too much can be read into such a statement. The authors admit that  “. . . it was a surprising finding which needs to be checked out with further research.

Essentially the booklet measures only the effect of sole mother custody where residence is with the mother and contact is with the father and he has to accept the terms offered – and so it has another shortcoming of being skewed in its sample base (“the national survey followed national patterns in that 91% of resident parents were female”).

How can family and child relationships be reinforced in England & Wales when less than 1 in 5 children (18%) had permission for a sleepover with their father (or other parent) ? By comparison 30% of Danish children have weekly “weekend sleepovers” with their fathers but English children have none – they have to wait for a fortnight or a month to pass or for the school holidays to arrive.

After the riots of Aug 2011 it probably became apparent to policy makers that something needed to change. If 5% of children in, for example Denmark, see their fathers daily and 16% see their fathers once (or more times) a week and 41% see their fathers every fortnight, the mentoring and sense of identity and belonging this brings would benefit English children at all social and income levels.

Radical reactionaries

It is surely an irony of gender equality that radical feminist should now be the most vocal opponents of shared parenting. They want the ordinary working women to be tied to the existing custody regime which sees mothers burdened with 100% of child custody after divorce and which excludes any hope of career advancement.

Radical feminists, who supposedly fought for years in the 1970s and 1980s for equal pay and equal rights etc for women now condemn women to the gender stereotype of “mere” home-maker and perpetual child-minder they once despised (‘bare foot and pregnant’).

In their efforts to disparage the government’s shared parenting initiative a coterie of radical feminist are relying (too heavily, one suspects), on research of dubious validity.

For instance, they rely on Jenifer McIntosh’s mini research into a small sample of 258 infants aged 0 to 2 years from 200 separating families. [2]  McIntosh and colleagues underline the alleged “significant negative impact” of shared care arrangements on children under the age of four in another paper.

She concludes that shared parenting is bad for young children when parents are in conflict mode (i.e. arguing), while quietly forgetting that, if true, it is equally bad in conventional custody mode of sole mother custody. Thus it is not a credible reason not to adopt shared parenting.

McIntosh has incurred the wrath of giants in the academic community, Kruk, Lamb, Nielson, and Warshak etc. Some believe her work is slapdash and unacademic drawing too many inferences from too small a data base.

And as Prof Warshak points out:

  •  ”Infants and toddlers often sleep away from their mothers and away from their home cribs. They sleep in prams, car seats, bassinets, and parent’s arms.

They sleep in day-care, in church, and in grandparents’ homes. Any married couple that takes a holiday in the first few years of their child’s life leaves the child in someone else’s care.” [3]

Norgrove who chaired a government report into parenting policy in 2011 appears to have succumbed to the fascination of McIntosh’s findings. Indeed, it is difficult to see why such poor work as achieved such traction as the expense of more seasoned and reliable researchers. Thank goodness the government has tossed his report aside.

Conveniently overlooked is the work of Nygaard Christoffersen who in 1996 looked into the matter of custody arrangements for Danish children aged from 3 to 5 year old, i.e. comparable to McIntosh’s age group (see Table, Denmark – Custody arrangements).

The breadth of the statistics available from the government’s own ONS form a questionable basis from which to operate and once again exposes ONS as not in the Top Ten of countries for useful fact gathering.

In 2004 the idea of shared parenting was rejected by the then government as impossible to implement despite other countries managing to do it – and in following years more countries successfully adopted the model, e.g. Australia and Belgium.

The argument in 2004 was that most parents sorted out their own custody arrangements and the DCA, under Lord Falconer, produced some rather dubious figures from a small Omnibus series to shore up his point. In fact, the argument was that only 10% of parents needed to go to court to get a court ruling and it was claimed the Omnibus series figures proved it. In fact, extrapolations were made from a very small sample of just over 930 adults. [4]  [See April 2013  Addendum below].

The present government which shares the same civil service as New Labour has adopted the same argument used in 2004, i.e. that “most parents arrange their own custody” arrangements. The claim thatmost parents arrange their own custody is a fairly recent alternative addition to the original 10% claim

Confounding convention

Since 2004 many academics have seized on this 10% estimate and fully embraced the concept that most parents don’t go anywhere near a court to settle custody matters, but annual concrete numbers do not support that theory.

On average the annual number of divorces in England & Wales is 150,000 and well over 50% of them involve children.

To comply with the “10% theory” only 15,000 couples would need to go to court, and in the alternative, i.e. at the level of “most parents don’t need to go to court”, would produce a figure of under 70,000 as a maximum. If there were 70,000 custody orders it would be reasonable to conclude that a truer picture would be that 100% of parents go to court to settle custody matters.

Section 8 of the Children Act 1989 governs the subject of child custody after divorce and it offers a variety of court orders which are published yearly. Section 8 court orders therefore give us the quantity of custody orders sought and granted.

The actual number of court orders for 2011 is over 70,000 and if one looks at the 2004 figures when the 10% figure was suggested over 91,000 Sect 8 court orders were made by the courts.[5]

This would appear to invalidate the claim of, a). 10% and, b). most parents.

The Children Act 1989 also allowed new freedoms to courts, i.e. judges, to make any kind of custody order that took their fancy.

After the 1989 Act judges could make sole custody orders; joint custody orders; shared residence orders; sole residence orders; contact orders and could even decide to make no order at all, i.e. the “no order” orders.

But look at the Table of disposals (above). This reveals that most of the orders made by judges after the 1989 Act were a). Contact orders and b). Sole Residence orders. There is no column for “joint residence” orders or for ‘shared residence’ orders but there are totals entered in the column for ‘no order’ orders.

It is surely an oddity thatjoint custody, so popular prior to 1989 and which the Act meant to enhance, has been the cause of its annihilation.

Second class kids ?

Not only do the totals appear not to match (re number of divorces, the number of custody awards versus the claim of 10%) but we have no idea of the gender of the persons applying for either ‘contact’ and / or ‘residence.’ Furthermore we have no idea if common-law, i.e. cohabitee unions/ relationships are being captured.

The ONS sows confusion by aggregating both married and unmarried couples for many of its social and criminal statistics – but it can’t do this with spousal divorces.

Addendum: April 2013 – At last an academic voice has joined our contention that the 10% figure is a nonsense. In written evidence to the Children and Families bill committee, Prof. Parkinson (author of Australia shared parenting law reform) poured scorn on the claim in child custody matters that “Only 10% choose to come to court over contact arrangements.”  In written evidence put before parliament he shows why it is wrong and unreliable (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmjust/739/739vw09.htm

This 10% figure has been cited extensively over the years and by Prof. Liz Trinder (and her inner circle of Jenn McIntosh), Peacey and Hunt (2008) and as far back as Joan Hunt & Ceridwen Roberts (2004).  For a brief review of its importance and impact see also “Parkinson’s cavalry crushes Norgrove’s big guns” http://equalparenting.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/16-2/.

Common-law or cohabitee relationships don’t figure at all on the judicial statistical radar screen since they are not spousal divorces.

Which leaves the question  hanging in mid-air as regards “How many”  is the number of children involved , and which by definition are not statistically ‘captured’ and which we, therefore, cannot know.

How many of these children have their futures mapped out not by courts or by concerned parents but on the back of an envelope ? And how many male cohabitees then apply for contact or residence only for that total to be intermingled with the contact application statistic of divorced fathers ?

We have little or no idea how these second class kids fair as they grow up. Do they, as Charles Murray believes, form the core of the emerging ‘Underclass’ destined for dead end lives ?

If England & Wales were to follow the Danish example of a very liberal divorce regime and high cohabitation rate, then family ruptures followed by ‘re-blended’ families will increase.

The downside would be that increasing numbers of children would grow up in 3 or 4 successive re-blended’ households having undergone the trauma of rupture (see Table). It is quite clear that more than 50% of Danish children experience 3 new parents combinations in their mother’s (parent’s) lives and 80% see 4 ruptures and re-blendings. Only about 10% of Danish children experience 5, 6 or 7 family reconstructions.

The exception to this trend are children of married couples where 92% experience only 1 family all their lives.

What is the rupture and re-blending rate for England & Wales ? We do not know.

In the above Danish Table we can see fathers and mothers are differentiated. Time and again ONS statistics prove themselves wholly inadequate on the gender dimension when compared with other Western nations.

Shared parenting already exists ?

Having conceded that surveys due to their varying size cannot agree on the numbers of children that see their fathers and at what time intervals – including the “never” category  which can actually mean once every  3 or 5 years – one is forced to ‘average’ what data exists.

A variety of sources, including the Gingerbread report, give the current level of shared parenting as ranging from 5% to 17% (fathers groups would like to see this quantity double). This leads one to question what all the protestations are about if 5% (or 17%) is the level that already exists ?

What we can be certain of is that mothers have 95% of sole custody awards of dependent children aged under 16. Figures for fathers who have sole custody is often the result, it would appear from ONS data, of them becoming widowers.

However, even this is complicated by a section of commentators (usually academics), who insist on terming ‘sole mother custody’ (with visiting rights for the father) as shared parenting.

According to the feminist lobby – which is the main vested interest opposed to shared parenting – it is already here and so there is no need or call to extend it. The reasoning for this, one has to supposes, is that in the 14% of the year allocated to fathers by way of weekend visits of a few hours every fortnight constitutes, in their mind, shared parenting.

While at one level this is plainly absurd it could be argued, if the feminist lobby proves unmoveable, that the measure proposed by the Minister for Children,  Tim Loughton MP merely extends this fiction of shared parenting by a fraction of time to, for instance, 20% or 30% of the year.


[1].  The full national report  of over 550 resident and non-resident parents in the UK was published in 2008 “Problematic Contact After Separation and Divorce? ” (Peacey and Hunt ). . http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Contact%20problems%20in%20separated%20families.pdf and  http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/contact-problems-separated-families . The shortened version “I’m not saying it was easy . . . . . contact problems in separated families” by Victoria Peacey & Joan Hunt, pub’d 2009, sample size = 41. Joan Hunt is one of several known opponents to shared parenting

[2]  “Shared custody a mistake for the under-2s, say guidelines” Dec 15th 2011. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/shared-custody-a-mistake-for-the-under2s-say-guidelines-20111214-1ouy6.html

[3] “Blanket Restrictions: Overnight Contact Between Parents And Young Children” by Prof R A Warshak.

[4] The Omnibus Survey [circa 2004] was a multi-purpose survey based on a representative sample of adults aged 16 or over. The report is based on 935 adults. 649 were resident parents 312 were non-resident parents and 26 respondents were both (so are counted in both categories).” The DfES made available the results on Friday 19th March 2004.

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