Who decides what’s best for children?

Australia has been ahead of the pack in recognising equal rights for parents. Kayla Sawyer

Social issues involving young children and warring interest groups make good media fodder. So researchers involved in these areas have to decide very carefully how to promote their findings to stop their work from being taken out of context. The latest chapter of the “shared care” debate shows how tricky this can be.

The 2006 reforms to the Family Law Act promoted the idea of fathers and mothers sharing the care of their children after separation. Opponents saw the changes as a disaster brought about by fathers’ rights groups; supporters saw it as fair and a recognition that men’s family roles had changed.

Australia was ahead of the pack in recognising equal rights for parents. It was only last year that Israel’s justice ministry accepted the findings of an expert committee recommending the “Tender Years Doctrine”, which automatically gave the care of children under six years old to their mother, be scrapped.

In Britain, two private members bills – the Shared Parenting Orders and Children’s Access to Parents bills – have been introduced to give fathers greater access to their children after divorce.

mau ry/flickr

The Australian reforms have not been accepted without conflict. After criticism from legal experts and women’s advocates, sections of the reforms were amended last year to make it clear that the interests of the child were to be rated above sharing of care between parents.

Now questions are being asked again about the basis of shared care. There’s a debate about whether very young children, those under two years old, for instance, should be allowed to spend the night with their other parent (in most cases,the father) after separation.

A recent report on post-separation parenting to the attorney general recommended that “shared care should not normally be the starting point for discussions about parenting arrangements for very young children.”

The report used supporting evidence from an examination of data from Growing up in Australia, a large national study following children and their families from the first year of life. It concluded that babies under two years who lived one or more overnights a week with both parents were significantly stressed.

Based on this report the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH), a group of professionals involved with families and their infants, released a set of guidelines – Infants and overnight care - post-separation and divorce – for deciding on this issue when parents separate.

Jennifer König

Their rules are clear: children under two years should not have overnight time away from the primary care-giver unless it’s necessary. In high conflict cases before the family court, no overnight care is appropriate before the child is three years old.

For such a sweeping decree, you’d expect the research to be pretty much watertight. But there are few studies of overnight care with young children and the results from these are contested.

Researchers have also pointed to weaknesses in the AAIMH guidelines. Although the Growing up in Australia study began with over 10,000 children, in the under-two age group, for the purposes of the guidelines, only 21 parents were classed as primary carers, and 64 ended up in the shared-care group. What’s more, the primary-care group included children who did stay one night a week with the other parent. So the evidence for overnight care away from the primary carer being damaging for infants is suggestive but not conclusive.

There’s nothing sinister in this; the authors of the Australian study are well-respected researchers with impressive track records in the area. Evaluation of emerging research is expected to detect flaws and doubts.

But guidelines barring parents from overnight care of their children ought to be firmly based on solid evidence. In this case, it appears that the results of the research have been stretched too far. Those deciding on parenting arrangements for young children after separation will still need to weigh up the benefits and the costs of sharing night-time care.