Being Seriously Misled by Research on Child Custody

Pop Goes the Woozle: Being Misled by Research on Child Custody and Parenting Plans

 By Prof. Linda Nielsen (2015)

Department of Education, Wake Forest University, Winston Salem, North Carolina, USA

Citation: Linda Nielsen (2015) ‘Pop Goes the Woozle: Being Misled by Research on Child Custody and Parenting Plans’, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 56:8, 595-633, DOI: 10.1080/10502556.2015.1092349

Downloaded by [Wake Forest University Libraries]  03 December 2015

Mental health professionals, lawyers, and judges whose work involves child custody decisions are often presented with social science research on issues related to which parenting plan is in the children’s best interests. Unfortunately, this research can be misrepresented in ways that mislead these professionals and the children’s parents, leading to child custody decisions that are not the most beneficial for the children. The process of misrepresenting the research in ways that create myths and misconceptions has been referred to as woozling. This article describes how social science data can be woozled, illustrating this with examples related to parenting plans for children under the age of 5 whose parents have separated.

 KEYWORDS:  joint custody, overnighting, parenting plans, shared parenting, woozling


 When parents negotiate or litigate a child custody agreement, mental health professionals often present social science research on behalf of a particular parenting plan or custody recommendation. Understanding how the social science data can be manipulated and misrepresented helps professionals who are involved in child custody decisions make wiser decisions. It also reduces the likelihood of being led astray by misrepresentations and distortions of the research. This process of misrepresenting the data has been referred to as woozling and the mistaken beliefs it creates are referred to as woozles (Gelles, 1980).

Several social scientists have written about how data can be misrepresented in family law, especially in regard to child custody issues (Cashmore & Parkinson, 2014; Johnston, 2007; Ramsey & Kelly, 2006). Lawyers and judges have also been warned about putting too much trust in custody evaluations because too many custody evaluators hold beliefs that are based on distorted, inaccurate, woozled versions of the research (Kelly & Johnston, 2005; Klass & Peros, 2011). Nielsen (2014c) provided a detailed account of woozling as it applied to one of the seven studies about parenting plans for very young children.

This article expands on these ideas by providing examples from all seven studies that have compared the outcomes of various parenting plans for children under the age of five. Further, this article also describes how researchers can inadvertently or intentionally contribute to the woozling of their studies. This article’s two central questions are as follows: How can professionals whose work involves making parenting plans for very young children be woozled by social science research? What can social scientists do to reduce the likelihood of woozles or to dismantle them once they have taken hold?

What is a Woozle ?

The term woozle was coined 35 years ago by sociologists Gelles (1980) and Houghton (1979). A woozle is a belief or a claim that is not supported—or is only partially supported—by the empirical evidence. Because the claim keeps “popping up,” though, the public and many policymakers come to believe it. As a result, inaccurate or seriously flawed data come to be accepted as the “research evidence” on that particular topic. Through a number of different woozling techniques, the findings from certain studies become magnified and widely disseminated, overshadowing those studies that would challenge the woozles. Eventually woozles can become so powerful that they have an impact on public opinion and public policy.

These distorted beliefs are similar to the imaginary woozle in the children’s story, Winnie the Pooh (Milne, 1926). In the story the little bear, Winnie, dupes himself and his friends into believing that they are being followed by a scary beast—a beast he calls a woozle. Although they never actually see the woozle, they convince themselves it exists because they see its footprints next to theirs as they walk in circles around a tree. The footprints are, of course, their own, but Pooh and his friends are confident that they are onto something really big. Their foolish behavior is based on faulty “data”—and a woozle is born. More recently Gelles described woozling as “the use, abuse and misuse” of social science research (Gelles, 2007). Like Pooh and his friends who are led astray by their own footprints, we are misled by woozled data. Indeed, professionals, including a judge (Hutchins, 2014), a forensic psychologist (Franklin, 2014a), a developmental psychologist (Mercer, 2014), and a lawyer (Franklin, 2014b) have found the concept of woozling useful in understanding the myths that affect child custody decisions.

Pop Goes the Woozle

Using another analogy from the children’s nursery rhyme, Pop Goes the Weasel, a woozle often behaves like the weasel who keeps popping in and out of holes in the ground, evading the monkey who is frantically chasing it around a mulberry bush. Like the evasive weasel who keeps popping up no matter how hard the monkey tries to catch it, woozled data can seem to have disappeared, but keep re-emerging and evading the people who are trying to “catch” them. Woozles are hard to catch for at least two reasons.

First, certain aspects of a woozle might be true in that some studies’ findings might lend support to some portions of the woozle. That is, there might be a small grain of truth buried in a bushel of untruths. Second, certain woozles are inherently appealing to a society’s prevailing beliefs, so people are more willing to accept those woozles without questioning the data underlying them. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (2014) wrote about a similar concept that he called a “zombie”—a belief that:

  • “. . . . everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea—an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die. And it does a lot of harm” (p. A-21).

Woozling the data is not restricted to the social sciences, of course. For example, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irvin Langmuir wrote about a similar process that he called “pathological science.” By this he meant an area of research that will not go away because some researchers or the general public so desperately want those particular ideas to be true. Even though the theory underlying the ideas has been proven false by the majority of physicists, the “pathological science” lingers on (Langmuir, 1989) .

Similarly, Carl Sagan (1997) discussed processes similar to woozling in many fields of science. To reduce the odds of being led astray by pseudoscience, Sagan described ways we can improve our skeptical thinking. The sceptical thinking tools in his “baloney detection kit” include encouraging substantive debate, considering more than one hypothesis, and not getting overly attached to a hypothesis just because it is yours. Along the same lines physicist Robert Park warned us not to be duped by frauds—with frauds being similar to woozlers. There are frauds who are merely speculating, intending no harm, frauds who falsely claim that their work has a scientific basis when they know full well that it does not, and frauds who deliberately exploit bad science with the intent to deceive or to confuse people. As Park explained, what might begin as the researcher’s honest error can evolve from naïve self-delusion to intentional fraud. In the beginning, some scientists honestly, although wrongly, believe they have made a great discovery.

When it gradually becomes clear to them that they were wrong the unscrupulous researchers continue to defend and to woozle their findings rather than admit their errors and set the record straight (Park, 2000).

How are Woozles Born and Raised ?

Although anyone who is involved in making child custody recommendations is subject to being woozled, being aware of how woozles come into being reduces the odds. By looking at examples from the research on parenting plans, we can more easily recognize woozles when we encounter them.

As we will see, the woozling process involves a combination of factors, interacting with one another in ways that often are unpredictable and unforeseen. No single person and no single factor can be held responsible. Although researchers themselves might sometimes contribute to the woozling of their own data or the data of others, many other factors must come into play to keep the woozles alive.

The examples of woozled data in this article are all related to the same question: For infants, toddlers and preschoolers whose parents have separated, is spending overnight time in the father’s care linked to any positive or negative outcomes? Put differently, should very young children spend all or almost all of the overnight time in their mother’s home? Other issues and other studies could be used to illustrate woozling. But because there are only seven studies that have addressed this particular child custody question, this particular topic is well suited to a discussion of woozling. Throughout this article, the term overnighting means children spending nights in their father’s care while living almost exclusively with the mother when the children are under the age of five. The word mother is used instead of primary care parent or residential parent; and the word father is used instead of nonresidential parent or secondary parent. This more clearly reflects the fact that 95% to 100% of the children in the seven overnighting studies were living almost exclusively with their mother and overnighting with the father. The findings from several of the overnighting studies are mentioned briefly in this article to illustrate the woozling process.

Extensive critiques and detailed comparisons are available elsewhere (Cashmore & Parkinson, 2011, 2014; Fabricius, 2014; Kelly, 2013, 2014; Lamb, 2012a; Ludolph & Dale, 2012; Milar & Kruk, 2014; Nielsen, 2014a, 2014b, 2014c; Pruett, Cowan, Cowan, & Diamond, 2012; Warshak, 2002, 2014). So we turn our attention now to these questions: How does woozling occur and what examples of woozling are evident in the overnighting studies ?

Misreporting Data or Wrongly Claiming Sim,ilarities Among the Finddings

We begin with one of the most powerful and most common ways that woozles come into being—repeatedly misreporting or only partially reporting data from a few studies—a process Gelles (1980) referred to as evidence by citation. This can happen even among well-educated professionals who discuss or write about studies without ever having actually read them or having read only the synopsis or the abstract. These kinds of woozles have been referred to as scholarly rumors (Johnston, 2007). Often the few frequently cited studies are presented together, as if they all reached similar conclusions, when in fact they did not. This can mislead people into believing that there is an emerging consensus or a pattern in the data. As cognitive psychologists have documented, people tend to perceive patterns or consistency in data or in situations that are actually random and inconsistent (Chabris & Simons, 2010). In part this occurs because we are more likely to believe data that offer relatively simple, consistent explanations for complicated questions (Kahneman, 2011). Because we like a consistent story, when several research studies are presented together as though their findings are similar, we are inclined to believe there is a pattern or a trend even when none exists.

As we will soon see, repeatedly misreporting certain studies and then presenting them as if they all reached similar conclusions has happened in regard to five of the overnighting studies (Altenhofen, Sutherland, & Biringen, 2010; McIntosh, Smyth, Kelaher, & Wells, 2010; Pruett, Ebling, & Insabella, 2004; Solomon & George, 1999; Tornello et al., 2013). Scholars who have critiqued and compared these five studies have concurred that there was no pattern in the findings and that there were very few similarities among them (Cashmore & Parkinson, 2011; Fabricius, Sokol, Dizen, & Braver, 2015; Kelly, 2013; Lamb, 2012a; Ludolph & Dale, 2012; Nielsen, 2014a; Pruett et al., 2012; Warshak, 2014).

Nevertheless, as woozles are prone to do, the assertion keeps popping up that these five studies reached a similar conclusion: Frequent overnighting (defined differently in each study) is linked to more insecure attachments, more emotion (affect) regulation problems, or more behavioral problems for children younger than 4 years old. For example, Tornello et al. (2013, p. 883) concluded that their study:

  • “. . . . is the third of four studies on the topic that show some evidence of increased insecurity among very young children who have frequent overnights.”

Likewise, the Australian researchers (McIntosh et al., 2010) who conducted one of the overnighting studies repeatedly stated that their findings overlapped with or were similar to four of the other overnighting studies (McIntosh, 2011b, 2012a, 2014c; McIntosh, Smyth, & Kelaher, 2013; McIntosh et al., 2010). As McIntosh (2012b) told an audience in a keynote address: “To cut a long story short, we took these findings, looked at the other studies, and saw a pattern” (p. 5, emphasis added). But as we will see, there is no pattern.

To begin, the Altenhofen et al. (2010) study could not possibly have reached conclusions similar to any of the studies that compared overnighting to nonovernighting children for one simple reason: All of the children in the study were overnighting. There was no other group in the study. Likewise, this study could not possibly overlap with any other study in finding a link between affect regulation or attachment and overnighting for two obvious reasons. First, affect regulation was not a variable in the study. Second, there was no significant correlation between the number of times these children overnighted and their attachment scores, as would have happened if overnighting was having any impact. The researchers simply found that 54% of these children of divorce had insecure attachment classifications—which is comparable to the 47% of insecurely attached children from single-parent families and higher than the 35% of insecurely attached children from intact families in general population surveys (Mulligan & Flanagan, 2006). In short, this study tells us nothing about differences between overnighting versus nonovernighting on attachment classifications.

The second study by Solomon & George (1999) has been woozled many times over the past 15 years. The many scholars who have critiqued this study concur that there was no significant link between overnighting, insecure or disorganized attachment classifications, or the toddler’s performance on a challenging task with his or her mother in the laboratory playroom (Cashmore & Parkinson, 2011; Fabricius, 2014; Kelly, 2013; Lamb, 2012a; Lamb & Kelly, 2001; Nielsen, 2014a; Pruett et al., 2012; Warshak, 2014). Solomon (1998) summarized their results clearly and succinctly years ago:

  • “Attachment security with the mother was not related to . . . the number of overnights per month, the number of consecutive nights away from the mother, or how well the schedule had been followed. Overnight separation from the mother in and of itself is not necessarily seriously disruptive to the mother–child attachment” (p. 5).

In the second phase of the study, there was no way to determine whether the overnighting babies were more distressed when briefly separated from their mother in the laboratory playroom because the overnighting and non- overnighting babies were never directly compared to one another. Given the persistent misrepresentations of their study, Solomon (2013) is still having to clarify their findings:

  • “Neither the particular patterns of overnight visits nor the total amount of time away from mother predicted disorganized attachment” (p. 169).

Keeping in mind that 37 of the 44 overnighting babies very rarely overnighted (1–3 times a month) and that the researchers emphasized that the baby’s reactions to brief separations from the mother in the laboratory procedure were not any indication of how babies would react to overnight separations from their mothers in divorced families, we have to wonder why the woozles emanating from this study have been so persistent.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the study has been repeatedly misreported for so many years by other social scientists—an excellent example of what Gelles (2007) called “evidence by citation.” For example, for more than a decade the authors of the Australian study (McIntosh et al., 2010) have made statements that might unwittingly lead people to believe that Solomon & George found overnighting was linked to a number of serious, negative outcomes in the babies’ day-to-day lives and in the overall quality of their relationships with their mothers. Among these statements were that the overnighting babies were more irritable and more watchful and wary of separation (McIntosh et al., 2010), had a greater propensity for anxious, unsettled behavior when reunited with the primary caregiver and a greater propensity for insecure and disorganized attachment (McIntosh, 2011b, 2011d), had more difficulties in emotional regulation (McIntosh, 2012), more developmental strain (McIntosh & Smyth, 2012), more irritability and fretful behaviors and more vigilant monitoring of the where abouts of their mother (McIntosh, 2013), and more unsettled, volatile and angry behavior and breakdown on reunion with the primary caregiver following a separation (McIntosh, 2014b).

As far back as 2003 (Martin, 2003), McIntosh was quoted in a newspaper article as having said that researchers had found that babies who live alternately with their divorced parents develop long lasting psychological problems, that those arrangements caused enduring disorganized attachment, and that as older children and adults, they have alarming levels of emotional insecurity and poor ability to regulate strong emotion. In 2003, Solomon & George were the only researchers who had conducted an attachment study with overnighting infants, so McIntosh could only have been referring to their study—a study that did not reach any of the conclusions reported in the newspaper article. Even as recently as 2013, McIntosh still held the view that:

  • “The value of this study cannot be underestimated: the first to take a deep, observational lens to examine how infants responded to mothers from whom they were frequently separated overnight. It has inspired all the studies since conducted” (McIntosh, 2013), [emphasis added – LN].

Reporting the Solomon & George data out of context or in exaggerated ways can unintentionally lead people to believe the woozle that spending even one night a month away from their mother caused the babies to become so insecure and anxious that they got upset whenever they were separated from her; had “breakdowns” when she returned; and became more fretful, angry, and irritable in their day-to-day lives. In sum, this study is an excellent example of a woozle that has been harder to catch than the weasel running around the mulberry bush.

As for the next overnighting study (Pruett et al., 2004), because the researchers did not measure attachment security or emotion regulation, this study cannot be part of a “pattern” linking overnighting to insecure attachments. Nor can this study be similar to others in finding that frequent overnighting had a more negative impact than occasional overnighting because that comparison was never made. In fact, this study cannot be similar to any study that found negative outcomes linked to overnighting because it found none. The overnighters were no different from the non-overnighters on five measures of well-being, with two exceptions. First, when the 4- to 6-year-old boys had inconsistent schedules and also had multiple caretakers, they were more anxious than the girls their age, a finding that the researchers attributed to boys having less advanced social skills than girls their age, not to overnighting. Second, overnighting appeared to benefit the 4- to 6-year-old girls because they were less withdrawn than the non-overnighting girls.

Moreover, having multiple caregivers (because they were overnighting) had no impact whatsoever on any measure of well-being for the 2- to 3-year-olds and had a positive impact on the 4- to 6-year-old girls:

  • “The worry about implementing overnights and parenting plans with multiple caretakers for infants and toddlers is misplaced” (Pruett et al., 2004, p. 55).

Despite stating their findings very clearly, their data were still cited to support the woozle that overnighting puts children at greater risk. For example, McIntosh (2013) told a seminar audience that Pruett found “having multiple caregivers was a significant problem for young children” (emphasis added) and that Pruett et al.’s findings “overlapped with” the findings from their Australian study (McIntosh, 2013)—which was not true for the 2- to 4-year-olds. The only “overlap” was that neither study found any negative outcomes linked to overnighting for the 4- and 5-year-olds.

The Australian overnighting study (McIntosh et al., 2010) also had very little in common with the other studies and did not reach similar conclusions.

First and foremost, the study did not include any measures of attachment or emotion regulation so it cannot possibly be similar to the only two studies (Solomon & George, 1999: Tornello et al., 2013) that did include those two measures. Second, four of the six measures had no established validity (Nielsen, 2014c; Warshak, 2014). Consequently, these data cannot be compared to findings from other studies because it is not clear what was actually being measured. It would also be difficult to find similarities with other studies as there was no clear or consistent relationship between the frequency of overnighting and the outcomes on most measures. For example, the babies who overnighted more than three times a month were more irritable, according to their mothers, than those who overnighted less often. But they were not less irritable than babies who never overnighted or babies who lived in intact families. The limitations of the study and the problems related to interpreting its data have been enumerated elsewhere, leaving very little interpretable data for children under the age of four to compare to the findings from other studies (Cashmore & Parkinson, 2011, 2014; Fabricius, 2014; Kelly, 2014; Lamb, 2012a; Ludolph & Dale, 2012; Nielsen, 2014a, 2014b, 2014c; Pruett et al., 2012; Warshak, 2014). In short, this study did not, as its authors have stated, “overlap with similar findings from Solomon and George and Altenhofen” (McIntosh, Smyth, & Kelaher, 2015, p. 114).

Similarly, the more recent study by Tornello et al. (2013) does not fit into a pattern of similar findings with the other overnighting studies. The Australian researchers (McIntosh et al., 2015, p. 113) were incorrect in asserting that the Tornello study was “similar to ours” and “replicated many of the Australian findings” (emphasis added). First, unlike any other overnighting study, Tornello et al.’s data came from a very distinct, atypical group of U.S. families: minority, inner-city, impoverished, poorly educated, never married parents with high rates of incarceration, mental health problems, and substance abuse—families where the mothers often had children by several different men with whom they had never even lived. Second, the study could not have much in common with the others because it used entirely different measures of children’s well-being and because it was one of only two studies (Solomon & George, 1999) that had used an attachment measure.

Whereas Solomon & George found no link between overnighting and attachment classifications, Tornello et al. did find a link between frequent overnighting and insecure attachment classifications. Because they used an attachment procedure that was not valid, however, we cannot know what was actually being measured—which means their attachment data cannot be used to make any comparison to the Solomon & George study. As for the statement that Tornello et al. replicated the Australian findings, the word replicated is generally defined as repeating a study in all its important details to establish the reliability of the initial finding. None of the overnighting studies have replicated one another. Again then, Tornello et al.’s findings did not overlap or fit into a pattern with the other overnighting studies. Given how often these five overnighting studies are misrepresented in academic journals and seminars, it is not surprising that the data are also misreported or woozled on the Internet by some social scientists. For example, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois (Hughes, 2014) wrote on his “Divorce Science” blog:

  • “There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests young children’s well-being may be adversely affected by frequent overnight stays. At the moment 4 out of 5 studies of this issue have found that overnights stays lead to attachment issues.”

Cherry Picking

Another common way that data can become woozled is to report only those studies or only particular findings from one study that support one particular point of view—a bias referred to as cherry picking (Johnston, 2007).

Johnston (2007) also noted another version of cherry picking: researchers acknowledging the limitations of their own study in the presence of other researchers, but minimizing or ignoring those limitations when discussing their findings with the media or with more naive audiences who do not have the expertise to recognize that they are being woozled.

One example of cherry picking occurred at a national conference for family court professionals. One panellist told the audience that the beneficial effects of shared parenting were “small” and that shared parenting plans were “less stable” (not as long lasting) than mother residence plans (Emery, 2012).

Although he might have been referring to the magnitude of the statistical difference being small, Emery (2012) cited only 1 of the 38 studies that had compared the effects of shared parenting to mother residence—36 of which showed better outcomes for the shared parenting children. He also cited only 2 of the 10 studies on the stability of shared parenting plans—8 of which showed the majority of shared parenting families were long lasting (Nielsen, 2013a, 2013b). For other examples of cherry picking in regard to the research on overnighting and shared parenting see Nielsen (2014c).

Journal or book editors can also cherry pick in what they choose to emphasize in their introductions or summaries and in which people they invite to contribute to the volume. For example, for a special issue of Family Court Review (FCR), the guest editor, Jennifer McIntosh, was criticized for having presented what many scholars considered to be a one-sided, inaccurate presentation of the research on babies’ attachments to their parents and the implications this might have for overnighting (Lamb, 2012b; Ludolph, 2012). For example, in her introductory summary article for the issue, McIntosh (2011a) presented only Schore’s opinions (Schore & McIntosh, 2011) as if they were the “generally agreed upon view” in neuroscience:

  • “From current neuroscience the dominant mother care of infants is not just sociologically informed; in normal development, the female brain is specifically equipped for the largely nonverbal, affiliative, nurturing aspects of attachment formation with an infant” (McIntosh, 2001a, p. 424).

McIntosh did not mention the views of Siegel, who in the same journal issue (Siegel & McIntosh, 2011), voiced the opposite opinion:

  • “I know people say women are more integrated because their corpus callosum is thicker. So what? That does not mean you cannot have as loving relationship as a male does with an infant. The primary caregiver is someone who is tuned in to the internal experience of the child, not just the child’s behaviour. . . . Males can do it, and females can do it. And some females cannot do it, and some males cannot do it.”

Three years later, the executive director of the Association of Family and Conciliatory Courts (AFCC), which publishes FCR, acknowledged that cherry picking had occurred: “AFCC and FCR were criticized for allowing one side of a controversial issue to be represented in FCR without counterpoint in the same issue. . . . In retrospect we would have made adjustments in order to create the best possible discussion” (Salem & Shienvold, 2014, p. 146).

Cherry picking is also evident when certain studies are all but ignored or are underemphasized in articles about overnighting. For example, the very first study (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992) to compare overnighting to non-overnighting babies is rarely if ever mentioned in the literature. At the outset of the study, 54 of the babies under the age of three had no contact with their father, 50 had daytime contact only, and 60 had more than 25% overnight time in their father’s care.

Three years later, all but one of the children who had been overnighting before the age of three still had fathers who were fully involved in their lives. In contrast 70% of the children who had not overnighted before the age of three no longer had any contact with their fathers. Given this, the researchers concluded that overnighting might be an important incentive for keeping fathers involved in their children’s lives—a benefit that might not be immediately apparent, but would emerge as the children aged. Yet this important finding is rarely mentioned in discussions of the research on overnighting.

The question in regard to the overnighting studies is this: Why has the cherry picking favoured the negative outcomes? That is, why has the focus been mainly on the few negative findings associated with overnighting rather than on the majority of positive or neutral findings? In part this negative cherry picking might be related to another woozling process referred to as confirmation bias.

Confirmation Bias: I’ll See It When I Believe it

Woozles are more likely to thrive when they confirm beliefs that people already hold—an effect referred to as confirmation bias (Chabris & Simons, 2010). Operating with this bias, we are overly critical and dismissive of data or ideas that contradict our existing beliefs. Kagan (1998) used the term “seductive ideas” to describe beliefs that are so appealing to the general public that most people readily believe any study that supports them. As the British philosopher, scientist, and statesman Francis Bacon wrote:

“For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes,” (Bacon, 1620).

Or as a more modern idiom puts it, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” Confirmation bias might help explain why the few negative outcomes that have been linked to overnighting have received more attention than the majority of positive or neutral findings, especially in the media. Many people still believe that females are, by nature, better than males at raising, nurturing, or communicating with children—especially infants and toddlers. For those individuals, studies with any negative findings linked to the baby’s being away from the mother overnight would be more appealing and more readily accepted. In fact, however, there is no empirical evidence that human females have a maternal “instinct”—an inborn, automatic, natural, built-in set of skills that better equips them to take care of babies. A mother’s responsiveness and nurturance of a baby—just like a father’s—is largely acquired through experience, not through instinct or through some unique feature in her brain (Hardy, 2009). In fact the same areas of the brain become activated in mothers and in fathers when they are interacting with their baby or when they hear their baby cry (Atzil, Hendler, Sharon, Winetraub, & Feldman, 2012; Mascaro, Hackett, & Gouzoules, 2013; Swaim & Loberbaum, 2008).

Likewise, fathers are just as capable as mothers of matching and understanding their baby’s nonverbal signals and emotions—a skill referred to as synchronicity (Feldman, 2003). In fact, among gay male couples, the father who was doing most of the daily caregiving was better at synchronizing and understanding the baby’s signals and had more neural activity in those parts of the brain associated with nurturing behaviours (Abraham, 2014).

Then, too, both the father’s and the mother’s oxytocin levels (the amino acid associated with nurturing behaviour) increase when they are interacting with their baby, and the father’s testosterone levels (the hormone associated with aggression) decrease (Gordon, Sharon, Leckman, & Feldman, 2010; Kuo, Carp, Light, & Grewen, 2012).

Another possible reason why the few negative findings linked to overnighting attract more attention is that those particular findings confirm several of the commonly held beliefs about babies and their mothers: first, that babies are naturally more attached to their mothers than to their fathers; second, that the infant’s bond with the mother is more primary and more influential than its bond with the father; and third, that their bond will be weakened if the baby spends too much time away from the mother.

According to contemporary research, however, these beliefs are not supported by the empirical data. Babies form important attachments to both parents at around 6 months of age, and a secure bond with the father is just as beneficial and just as primary in importance. Among a few of the findings from specific studies are that infants and toddlers seek comfort equally from both parents (Bretherton, 2011); that although most 12- to –18-montholds turn first to their mothers when they are distressed, there is no overall preference for either parent (Lamb & Lewis, 2013); that fathers support children’s sense of security as much as mothers do (Freeman, Newland, & Doyl, 2011); and that the link between an insecure relationship with a parent at age 15 months and subsequent behavioural problems at age eight is just as strong for the relationship with the father as it is with the mother (Kochanska & Kim, 2012). In sum, when it comes to their susceptibility to being woozled, people will more readily believe studies that confirm their pre-existing beliefs about babies and mothers—even when those data are weak, flawed, or inconclusive.

The Experts Say: The Consensus is

Another way that data can inadvertently become woozled is to use phrases like “the experts agree” or “the consensus is” to make it appear as if there is general agreement on a particular topic in situations where there is not. Statements such as these should be documented by citing the research, otherwise the “expert” claims are not trustworthy. For example, in a widely read issue of FCR, Schore stated that babies should not spend overnight time in their father’s care after the parents separate because “The science suggests” that one parent needs to be a “constant source of nightly bedtime routines” (Schore & McIntosh, 2011, p. 508). Yet Schore did not cite a single empirical study to support his dramatic assertion.

Similarly, because consensus reports do play an important role and merit special attention, the word consensus should be used judiciously and in the proper context. For example, the AFCC sponsored a Think Tank meeting of 32 professionals in law and social science to see if they could reach any consensus about legal presumptions for shared parenting and about overnighting. The group reached no consensus.

  • “The discussion . . . stalled” (Pruett & DiFonzo, 2014, p. 163).

One year later three of the people who had attended the meeting wrote an article expressing their views on overnighting (Pruett, McIntosh, & Kelly, 2014). The authors included the phrase “a consensus view” in their subtitle, and in their abstract they alluded to the previous year’s Think Tank meeting. This might unintentionally have created the impression that their co-authored paper represented a consensus of the opinions of the Think Tank, which it did not. One of the authors also announced in a keynote address at a national conference (McIntosh, 2014a, p. 5) and in an article for the Australian Psychological Society’s magazine (McIntosh, 2014b, p. 4) that:

  • “The work of progressing toward a consensus on infant overnights was then tasked by AFCC to a trio of developmental and divorce researchers.”

Again, the words consensus and tasked by might be misunderstood to mean that AFCC or the people at the previous year’s meeting agreed with these three authors’ views on overnighting—or that AFCC had commissioned them to write an article that represented the organization’s position.

Because a paper that represents the views of a group of scholars is likely to have more influence and more credibility than a co-authored paper, the word consensus needs to be used judiciously and precisely. For example, a paper entitled “Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report” was endorsed by 110 scholars who all agreed on a set of recommendations and who all endorsed the review of literature on which those recommendations were based (Warshak, 014). These 110 scholars reached the consensus that regular and frequent overnights for infants and toddlers need not be postponed until the children are older. To ensure that people were not misled by the word consensus, Warshak (2014) went even further by clarifying that the paper did not represent a consensus of all scholars in regard to the topic of overnighting.

The word consensus might also lead to woozling by creating the impression that certain articles deserve special attention or are more trustworthy and credible because they represent the opinions of a group of experts, when in fact that is not the case. For example, McIntosh et al. (2015) contended that an article McIntosh wrote with Kelly and Pruett (McIntosh, Pruett, & Kelly, 2014) was commendable for representing “important elements of consensus writing” (p. 117). By their definition, any paper written by more than two people who make certain concessions to reach mutual agreements on particular issues would be deemed noteworthy as an example of “consensus” writing.

In contrast, McIntosh et al. (2015) contended the Warshak (2014) paper that was read, critiqued, and endorsed by 110 scholars was not a “consensus” paper—and was nothing more than a “petition” (McIntosh et al., 2015). In that vein, it is worth noting that in the group that endorsed the Warshak paper, there were 11 people who had held major office in professional associations, such as a former president of the American Psychological Association; 5 university vice presidents, provosts, or deans; 14 professors emeriti; 17 department chairs; 61 full professors; 16 members of the American Board of Professional Psychologists (ABBP), and eight professors with endowed chairs. Others were leading attachment researchers, the current editor of the major journal on attachment, and leading day care and early child development researchers.

Clearly then, the word consensus can be confusing. Perhaps the best way to reduce the likelihood of woozling with this word is to use it as defined by Webster’s Dictionary:

  • “a group decision making process that seeks the consent of all participants; a professionally acceptable resolution that can be supported by each individual in the group; a general agreement of a group’s solidarity” (emphasis added).

By Webster’s definition, Warshak’s (2014) paper is a consensus report, but co-authored papers are not.

Presenting Data Out of Context

Data can also become woozled when presented out of context, especially in press releases and abstracts. One way this happens is reporting the few negative findings without giving equal attention to the nonsignificant or positive findings. Another is ignoring or failing to emphasize the unique, atypical characteristics of the people in the study, which woozles people into believing that the findings are applicable to the general public, when in fact they are not. Or the data can be presented in alarming ways, when in fact the findings are not particularly unusual for the sample in the study.

The press release (Samarrai, 2013) and the abstract for the study by Tornello et al. (2013) illustrate all three of these problems. First, both focused almost exclusively on the one negative finding: 43% of the frequently overnighting infants had insecure attachment ratings versus 25% of the non-overnighters. Not mentioned was the fact that on six of the seven measures, there were no differences among the various groups of overnighters or non-overnighters.

Also not mentioned was the fact that these findings were not applicable to the vast majority of separated parents because these parents were members of racial minorities who were living in abject poverty in inner cities, with high rates of incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse, and mothers having children with several different men out of wedlock. Further, in the general population of impoverished single-parent families, 61% of the babies and 43% of the toddlers have insecure attachment ratings (Andreassen & Fletcher, 2007). Put into context, this means that the babies in the study had “normal” attachment classifications for children living in similar types of families. Finally, 26 of the 51 frequently overnighting babies assessed on the attachment measure lived primarily with their father—a highly atypical situation.

Unless we know why these babies were not living with their mothers, we cannot put these attachment data into proper context. Other examples of presenting data out of context have been discussed elsewhere in regard to the Australian overnighting study (Nielsen, 2014c; Warshak, 2014), and earlier in this article in regard to the Solomon & George (2009) study.

Invalid or Unreliable Tests and Procedures

All research studies have limitations. But as long as they are acknowledged frequently and openly whenever the data are presented, especially in media interviews, woozling is less likely to occur. One of the most serious limitations is using a scale or a procedure that has no established validity or reliability—or using a valid instrument but not following the correct procedures in administering it. More important still, data from invalid measures have to be presented as speculative at best because there is no way to determine what is actually being measured.

One example of woozles that can arise from invalid measures is the Australian study that concluded that frequent overnighting had a “deleterious impact” on children under the age of four (McIntosh et al., 2010). Based on their “visual monitoring scale,” these researchers reported that the frequently overnighting toddlers were significantly stressed, worked harder to monitor their mother’s presence, and had an “added degree of vulnerability” (McIntosh et al., 2010, p. 144). However, the three-item scale was one the researchers had created for their study without being able to establish its validity or reliability. They had merely extracted three questions from the Communication and Symbolic Behaviour Scales (CSBS), which measures children’s readiness to learn to talk (Wetherby & Prizant, 2001).

On the CSBS, frequently gazing at and trying to get the attention of the mother are positive signs that the baby is ready to learn language. The Australian researchers, though, used the three questions to measure how anxious, stressed, or vulnerable the baby felt in the mother’s presence—which they interpreted as signs of insecurity and anxiety. The findings from these three questions were widely reported from 2010 to 2014 as evidence that babies who overnighted were more stressed, more anxious, and more insecurely attached to their mothers (Nielsen, 2014). In responding to scholars who had pointed out that their scale was not valid (Nielsen, 2014c; Warshak, 2014), the authors defended it as a “utilitarian compromise” that was “theoretically derived” from attachment theory (McIntosh et al., 2015, p. 116). This position not only ignores the accepted standards in social science for using valid measures, but it is also at odds with McIntosh’s own statements in a keynote address, which she ended with her “prayer to the secular God/Goddess of Family Law”: “Give us sensitive research tools and deliver us from shallow methodologies” (McIntosh, 2012b).

Similarly Tornello et al. (2013) relied on an invalid procedure for measuring attachment. Although they acknowledged this problem, they presented the attachment findings as if they were extremely important – especially in the press release and in the abstract of their paper. They diminished the importance of this serious limitation by stating that the scale “can be called into question. . . “can perhaps fail to detect true effects,” and might “perhaps be potentially biased” (emphasis added, p. 883). In fact, however, data from invalid procedures are definitely “in question” because it is not clear what has been measured. If Tornello and her colleagues had emphasized this problem and then presented their attachment data more tentatively, perhaps their findings would not have become woozled to the extent they were in the media, as we will soon see.

Overstating the Practical Significance of Data: Making Mountains Out of Mole Hills

Another way that woozles can arise is overstating the practical significance of the findings, especially when the scores are within normal range for that particular population. There might be a statistical difference on a measure between the groups in the study, but the practical significance of that difference is relatively minor. Similarly, the findings might be presented as if they have a considerable impact on people in real-life situations, when there is little to no evidence that the factor has much impact at all.

For example, in the Australian overnighting study (McIntosh et al., 2010) the researchers and the journalists reported that the toddlers who frequently overnighted “showed severely distressed behaviors in their relationship with their primary parent” (Nielsen, 2014c, p. 9). These behaviors included biting, kicking, and hitting their mother; refusing to eat and gagging on food; and clinging to her when she tried to leave. As alarming as this sounds, half of the 4,400 mothers in the Australian national survey from which the sample was drawn reported that their toddlers engaged in this relatively normal toddler behavior (Smart, 2010). More recently a Norwegian study with 1,159 toddlers also found that this kind of behavior is fairly frequent for 1- to 2-year-olds, and that it decreases by age 3 (Naerde, Ogden, Janson, & Zachrisson, 2014).

In other words, the Australian researchers were overstating the significance of these kinds of fairly common toddler behavior by interpreting them as signs of “severe distress” that they attributed to overnighting. Overstating the data’s practical significance is especially common in studies that include attachment measures. Except for those social scientists who know what the term insecure attachment means, many people are likely to believe insecure attachment means the baby is not closely bonded to the mother or that their relationship is weak, unloving, or unhealthy.

In fact, however, insecure attachment means none of these things. First, as Waters and McIntosh (2011), who created one of the most widely used attachment measures, explained, “There is no way of measuring the strength of attachment” (p. 476). Attachment procedures merely assess how infants and toddlers react when stressed by the presence of a stranger or by new or challenging situations, which parent they seek out first for play or for comfort, and how confident they feel about exploring their surroundings (Newland, Freeman, & Coyle, 2011).

Second, there is not a strong, consistent link between a baby’s attachment classification and his or her future behavior or relationships with peers, romantic partners, or parents (Ludolph & Dale, 2012). In other words, babies’ attachment classifications do not reliably predict future outcomes. In contrast, a baby’s having a loving, attentive, responsive relationship with both parents is linked to better outcomes later in the child’s life. Again, though, this is not what attachment measures are assessing. Third, a baby who is classified as having a secure attachment does not necessarily have a loving, healthy relationship with the mother.

For example, babies with abusive or neglectful parents and babies who are overly dependent on their mothers can still be classified as securely attached (Zeanah & Emde, 1994). Fourth, in U.S. research studies only about 60% of the children are classified as securely attached (Rutter, 1997). But this does not mean that the 40% with insecure classifications have troubled, unloving, or weak relationships with their mothers. Finally, attachment measures are not designed to assess how children will adapt to overnighting after their parents separate or to assess which parent is better at taking care of the child.

For all of these reasons, the practical significance of a baby’s attachment classification is of limited value in regard to custody issues. Unfortunately there are judges and family court professionals who are misled or confused by the terms attachment and bonding (Arredondo & Edwards, 2000).

Developmental psychologist Jane Mercer (2011) compared people’s fears about babies becoming insecurely attached to the fears of the heffalump in Winnie the Pooh. Pooh’s friends were afraid of an unidentified creature they called a heffalump. As it turned out, the feared heffalump was nothing more than poor old Pooh stumbling around with his head stuck in a honey pot. In regard to babies’ overnighting after the parents separate, Mercer (2014) wrote,

  • “My bet is that the heffalumps have been romping with the woozles to create an unnecessarily increased tension about attachment.”

In sum, we need to keep in mind that statistically significant findings on attachment measures might be of little practical significance in real-life situations.

Small Studies with Big Databases

Woozling can also occur when people are misled to believe that a study included far more people than it actually did. If the size of the database is emphasized – especially in press releases, abstracts, or keynote addresses – people can easily get the impression that there were large numbers of people in the actual study, which makes the findings seem more important or more credible. For example, McIntosh (2012b, p. 4) told an audience at a national conference that “our study explored a large randomly selected general population data set which amounts to 10,000 children.” What was not mentioned was that there were as few as 14 children in some groups in the study and that small sample sizes were a major limitation of their study. Likewise, Tornello was quoted in the widely disseminated press release (Samarrai, 2013) as saying that their study “analyzed data” from “a national longitudinal study of about 5,000 children.”

What was not stated was that the numbers were much smaller in the actual study, especially on the attachment measure—the one finding that was most widely reported in the media. In fact, the findings on insecure attachments and frequent  overnighting were based on data from only 55 frequently overnighting babies—a far cry from 5,000 children. To show how distorted data can become, one journalist reported that: “The University of Virginia study assessed the attachment of 5,000 young children” (Rowlands, 2013, emphasis added). In sum, the likelihood of woozling is reduced if social scientists and journalists emphasize or only report the actual numbers of people in the study.

Misleading Titles, Abstracts, and Press Releases

Abstracts and press releases can also accidentally contribute to the woozling of a study’s findings. Busy professionals and journalists are apt to read only the initial press release announcing the results of the study. It is often only the abstract of a paper that is picked up by search engines and provided for free on a journal’s Web site, as opposed to the entire article that must be purchased. This places a special burden of responsibility on the researcher to provide a balanced press release and abstract, summarizing the major findings and specifying the unique characteristics of the sample.

One illustration of this was the study by Tornello et al. (2013). The university’s press release (Samarrai, 2013) began with the alarming title “Overnights Away from Home Affect Children’s Attachments,” and then reported that “infants who spent at least one night per week away from their mothers had more insecure attachments to the mother compared to babies who had fewer overnights or saw their fathers only during the day.”

The most alarming statement, which ended up in dozens of newspapers worldwide, was that: “43% of babies with weekly overnights were insecurely attached to their mothers versus 16% with less frequent overnights.”  Further, Tornello was quoted as saying that the study could be used by judges:

  • ” . . . .to help decide whether babies are better off spending overnights with a single caregiver” (emphasis added).

Keep in mind that attachment measures do not assess how securely attached babies are to their mothers and are not designed to be used in making custody decisions about overnighting.

The press release might also have inadvertently contributed to woozling by not mentioning six important facts and findings. First and foremost, there were no significant links between overnighting and six of the seven measures of children’s well-being. Given this, a more accurate title for the press release and ensuing media reports would have been “Overnighting Makes Very Little Difference.Second, these findings were not applicable to the vast majority of separated or divorced parents given the unique characteristics of the sample. Third, the most frequently overnighting 3-year-olds were better behaved at age five. Fourth, attachment measures do not assess how securely bonded babies are to their mothers. Fifth, the 55 frequently overnighting babies’ attachment scores were well within normal range for children from poor, single-parent families (Andreassen & Fletcher, 2007). Sixth, the attachment measure used in this study was not a valid one, meaning that we do not know what these data mean. The press release also stated that the second author, Robert Emery, who was Tornello’s thesis advisor;

  • “advocates parenting plans where day contact with fathers occurs frequently and overnights away from the primary caregiver are minimized in the early years” (Samarrai, 2013).

Long before conducting this study, Emery held the view that overnighting should be restricted for the first 3 years of a child’s life:

  • “Secondary attachment figures (fathers) can have frequent but relatively brief contacts with their baby during the first year of life, but the contact can become longer and more frequent as babies become toddlers” (Emery, 2011, emphasis added).

Further, Emery believes it is sufficient for the father’s brief daytime visits to take place at his child’s day care center or in the mother’s home (Emery, 2004, p. 180). To reduce the potential for woozling, regardless of their own opinions on issues related to their study, researchers should strive to avoid making recommendations for the general public if their study is based on a sample that is not representative of the general population. In sum, the Tornello et al. (2013) study illustrates several of the pitfalls that the AFCC Think Tank warned against—pitfalls that contribute to the creation of woozles. First, one finding from a study should not be given disproportionate attention.

Second, one negative outcome should not be presented without presenting the other nonsignificant findings that are equally revealing. Third, when the scores fall within the normal range for that particular population, the differences should be interpreted as less relevant for making recommendations about child custody or parenting plans (Pruett & DiFonzo, 2014).

Woozling in the Media

Data can also be misrepresented in the media, becoming increasingly woozled as the story travels around the world. This might happen when researchers present their findings directly to the media and use dramatic stories to make their data more memorable (Park, 2003). There are a number of reasons why some social scientists are more likely than others to woozle their data—or why some studies are more susceptible to woozling regardless of the researchers’ best efforts to prevent it (Thompson & Nelson, 2001).

First, some social scientists benefit from media attention because it provides public and professional recognition, which, in turn, can increase their incomes. For example, if the researchers are generating income from counseling services, speaking engagements, or seminars that are largely dependent on their own study’s findings, they might be more inclined to exaggerate or to overreach their data to boost people’s desire for their “product.”

Second, social science appears to be easier to understand than disciplines like neurology or physics. Given this, reporters might not ask social scientists the kinds of probing questions that would reduce the odds of the data becoming woozled. Third, it is easy to frame social science data in ways that relate to public concerns, even if the studies were not designed to address those particular issues. In these situations the media can more easily spin the data in ways that support a particular position or policy. Then, too, confirmation bias can affect the way journalists report the findings. For example, reporters’ own feelings about overnighting can influence the kinds of questions they ask and which researchers they choose to interview. Given the media’s influence, it is incumbent on social scientists to inform the media when their own data or when other scientists’ data have been inaccurately reported, overstated, or distorted. The more media coverage a study receives, the more potential impact it has on public opinion or policy. So these studies should be even more carefully scrutinized by researchers who want to protect the public from woozles.

One recent example of how the media contribute to woozling is the study by Tornello et al. (2013). As already explained, the initial press release and the abstract focused primarily on the one negative finding about insecure attachments. Not surprisingly then, the study was soon being woozled internationally under alarming headlines such as these: “Overnight Separation Linked to Weaker Bond” (Preidt, 2013), “Babies Who Spent More Than One Night Away from Mother Are More Insecure” (Furness, 2013), “Nights Away from Mum Leave Babies Less Secure: New Findings Could Affect Custody Rulings for Young Children” (Nights away, 2013), “Divorce Study Shows Infants’ Attachment to Caregivers Affected by Joint Custody” (Divorce study, 2013). Woozling the data even further, one journalist wrote,

  • “A new study suggests parents make or break their child’s ability to form healthy relationships for life before the baby’s first birthday. When babies spend even one night away from their primary caregivers in that first year those babies may be in for tough times building relationships as adults” (Hallas, 2013).

Similar stories appeared in India ( Spending Nights Away from Home Affects Baby’s Attachment, 2013) and Australia (Infants Who Overnight, 2013), as well as on a medical news Web site (Scutti, 2013), a law firm’s Web site (Kenny, 2013), and Psyche Central’s Web site (Wood, 2013). More noteworthy still, the British Psychological Society (2013) reported the study on their Web site under the headline, “Staying Away Affects a Baby’s Attachment.”

These alarming and distorted media reports were reminiscent of what had happened only a few years earlier with the Australian overnighting study (McIntosh et al., 2010) whose findings had been woozled worldwide in the media since 2010 (Nielsen, 2014c). In the case of both studies, shortly after their release, the woozles started running around the mulberry bush, popping up in various forms in the media around the world.

In the wake of the media woozling of the Tornello et al. (2013) study, another researcher (Sokol, 2014) reanalyzed their data. Sokol correlated each child’s attachment rating with the actual number of nights each child spent in the father’s care, instead of separating the children into groups before analyzing the data as Tornello et al. had done. Sokol found no significant correlation between the number of overnights and the children’s attachment scores. Sokol’s study, however, has not yet made its way into the media – and has not been able to catch the woozles emanating from the Tornello et al. study.

Issuing Warnings with Ambiguous Terms

Data can also become distorted into woozles when researchers use ambiguous terms when they issue warnings based on their research. As a hypothetical example, assume that a research team repeatedly states in media interviews and in their academic papers that the babies and toddlers in their study who “frequently” ate food containing peanuts were more irritable, anxious, unmanageable, and insecure than the babies who ate peanut products “less frequently,” “rarely,” or “occasionally.”

They reassuringly report, though, that the children who were older than four had no adverse reactions to frequently eating peanut products. Unless the researchers make it abundantly, emphatically, and repeatedly clear from the outset that they are not recommending that children under four should never eat peanut products, the study runs the risk of being taken to mean,: “Never feed children any peanut products until they are at least 4 years old.” It is highly unlikely that most people would assume it was a good idea to occasionally feed babies and toddlers peanut products – unless the researchers repeatedly and emphatically publicized that fact. Especially if the study is repeatedly represented in the media with frightening headlines like “Babies Struggle After Eating Too Many Peanut Products,” an anti-peanut-eating woozle is almost inevitable.

In fact, this hypothetical example is not so hypothetical after all. Until 2000 the American Academy of Paediatrics had recommended withholding food containing peanuts until children were 3 years old. In 2008 they revised that position and said there was no conclusive evidence on the topic. Not surprisingly, most parents were still hesitant to feed their very young children any food containing peanut products. Meanwhile children’s peanut allergies continued to increase in the United States and Britain, while they remained low in Israel where most babies routinely ate peanut products. Finally, in 2014 British researchers conducted a study where one group of babies at high risk of developing peanut allergies were given foods containing peanut product until they were 5 years old. The other high-risk group was denied peanut products. At the age of five, the peanut-eating children had significantly fewer peanut allergies (DuToit et al., 2015).

The point is that responsible researchers should take extra precautions to clarify their findings when they are issuing warnings, especially when using ambiguous words like occasional or frequent. For example, in the Australian study (McIntosh et al., 2010), one group of babies had “regular” and “frequent” overnights. People might assume that regular meant at least weekly and that frequent meant far more than one overnight a week. In fact, however, regular and frequent merely meant overnighting more than three nights a month—not necessarily weekly or on any regular basis. Similarly when researchers issue warnings with phrases like “contra-indicated,” “caution against,” “generally best avoided,” or “only when necessary,” people are likely to understand this to mean: Do not ever do this. Researchers might be perceived as disingenuous or dissembling if they claim at some later point that they never imagined that their warnings could possibly be construed as a “never do this” message. It might be true that, when the researchers issued their warnings, they briefly mentioned that there might be “exceptions” or that their warnings might not apply in “all” cases. As in the peanut warnings, though, most people respond to warnings or contra-indications as if these are rules that apply in all cases.

One example of this is the Australian study (McIntosh et al., 2010) that was widely interpreted as a warning against overnighting under the age of four (Nielsen, 2014c). Over a period of years, having made such statements as “in early infancy overnight stays are contra-indicated, undertaken when necessary or helpful to the primary caregiver” (McIntosh, 2011d, p. 4), the lead author was often perceived and often reported in the media as being opposed to overnighting. For more than half a decade the “anti-overnighting” woozles emanating from this study circulated worldwide in the media and in the academic community (Nielsen, 2014c). Four years after the study’s release, two academic papers (Nielsen, 2014c; Warshak, 2014) pointed out the woozling and the limitations of the study, followed by an article in a major Australian newspaper (Arndt, 2014). It was at that point that McIntosh posted a statement on her counselling centre’s Web site (McIntosh, 2014d) and co-authored an article (McIntosh et al., 2014) in which she stated that she had never recommended that very young children should “never” overnight.

Suggesting Statistically Significant Findings Where None Exist

Data are also more easily woozled when the findings are worded as if they are statistically significant, when in fact they are not. For example, in studies where there are no statistically significant differences, people might report the findings with misleading phrases like “greater propensity for,” “some evidence of,” “difference in the expected direction,” “indicative of,” or “more likely to.” For example, in regard to the Solomon and George (1999) study, it would not be lying to say that “more” of the babies who overnighted had disorganized and insecure attachments than babies who did not overnight.

Lying, no; but woozling, yes, because the difference was not statistically significant. Given this, it can mislead people to report that the overnighting babies had “a greater propensity for insecure and disorganized attachments (McIntosh, 2011a, 2011b, emphasis added). In social science research, the

differences between the groups or the correlations between the factors either are or are not statistically significant. Given this, people can be led astray when researchers report that their study found “evidence of more problematic behaviours . . . and a trend with respect to the rare overnights group” when there were no statistically significant differences between these groups (McIntosh, Smyth, Kelaher, & Wells, 2011, emphasis added). Likewise, it is fertile ground for woozles when researchers state that several studies “show some evidence of increased insecurity among very young children who have frequent overnights” (Tornello et al., 2013, p. 883, emphasis added) when the studies they have cited either found no statistically significant differences or had no measures of insecurity at all.

Compelling Anecdotes, Analogies, and Credentials

How the research is presented can also contribute to the eventual woozling of the data. For example, when the findings are presented along with anecdotal stories, emotionally laden photographs, or case studies, we are more likely to remember, to repeat, and to believe them. These techniques are beneficial when used to make a presentation more entertaining. However, anecdotal stories or case studies can contribute to woozling if they are exaggerations or anomalies that might incline people to adopt a view that is not supported by the empirical data (Best, 2001). By arousing people’s emotions, these techniques increase the odds that the data will be more widely disseminated and, in too many cases, more widely woozled (Kahneman, 2011; Stanovich, 2003).

Several of these emotionally charged approaches can be found in presentations of the research on shared parenting and overnighting – approaches that might contribute to people’s receptivity to woozled data.

For example, at a national conference a speaker who was making an argument against shared parenting (Emery, 2012) compared these children to the baby who was almost chopped in half in the biblical story about King Solomon. On his slide entitled “Solomon’s Sword” were the Bible passages from the King Solomon story. The analogy, of course, is that those separated parents who want to continue living with their children at least a 35% of the time are “sacrificing” them to meet their own selfish needs. Metaphorically, these unloving parents are willing to “chop the children in half,” just like the selfish mother who stole another woman’s newborn and was willing to let King Solomon slice the baby in half rather than returning it to its real mother. The message is far from subtle: Unless both parents agree to share, if you love your children, you will not ask for—or go to court for—a shared parenting plan where your children will be “split in half” by living in two homes.

Woozles might also gain support when social scientists tell anecdotal stories or present dramatic case studies without presenting any empirical data. For instance, in its national newsletter, the AFCC published a story by McIntosh (2010, p. 6) whose own overnighting study had been widely interpreted as a warning against overnighting (Nielsen, 2014c). According to McIntosh’s story, she had missed her flight and found herself in a New York City train station where a “distraught” teenage mother asked to use her cell phone to call her mother for help. The teenager was trying to get her baby back from its father, a “smooth talker with drug friends who can hurt her.”

When the baby was only 8 weeks old, a judge had allegedly ordered that the child spend alternating weeks with each parent. “Between sobs” the teenager confided in McIntosh: “I moved up here from the south so his dad could see him more. The court said I got to.” So now the teenage mother was living alone in New York, working and going to school, and taking three trains to transport the baby for the week-long stays with the father.

After buying the teenage mother a cup of coffee and making sure she got on her train, McIntosh “started dreaming about a family court system . . . with rulings that prioritized adequate care-giving experiences for babies.”

Although emotionally engaging, such anecdotal stories might inadvertently incline people to be more receptive to ideas that are not grounded in the research—in this case, to the idea that most judges are inclined to grant 50/50 physical custody even when the mother is a teenager and the baby is only 8 weeks old.

As cognitive psychologists have also demonstrated, we are more likely to be woozled by data that are presented by a confident or a well-known person (Chabris & Simons, 2010) or by a person who has important sounding titles and prestigious affiliations (Johnston, 2007). For example, when people refer to themselves as professors or fellows or list university affiliations next to their names, others are likely to assume that they hold a full-time faculty position or have been awarded a prestigious research fellowship.

In some cases, however, this is an exaggeration of the actual status or nature of their affiliations. Inflating their credentials in these ways decreases the chances that other people will challenge their ideas or question their research—which, in turn, makes it easier for woozles to arise.

Going Beyond Limited Data to Suggest Policy or Offer Recommendations

Another aspect of woozling is making policy recommendations or issuing guidelines for the general public by relying on only a few studies and ignoring the vast body of research relevant to the issue. For example, McIntosh (2011c), in the section of her paper, “Implications for Parents, Practice and Policy,” recommended that “In early infancy overnight stays are contra-indicated, undertaken when necessary of helpful to the primary caregiver and when the second parent is already an established source of comfort and security for the infant” (p. 4). At the time, there were only four overnighting studies, three of which had not attributed any negative outcomes to overnighting (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992; Pruett, Ebling & Insabella, 2004; Solomon & George, 1999) and one (McIntosh et al., 2010) that provided only limited evidence of negative outcomes for the overnighting children. More important, there were more than four decades of research directly relevant to the topic of overnighting that McIntosh’s policy statement ignored. That body of research;

  • “. . . . provides a growing and sophisticated fund of knowledge about the needs of young children, the circumstances that best promote their optimal development and the individual difference among children regarding their adaptability to different circumstances, stress and change” (Warshak, 2014, p. 46).

Since 2010 the Australian overnighting study, to the exclusion of the findings from the other overnighting studies, has often been cited in support of the position that overnighting is harmful to very young children (Nielsen, 2014c). For example, the Australian Attorney General cited the study as part of the “strong evidence base” for his proposed amendment to revoke the 2006 Family Law Act—a law that was more favourable toward shared parenting (Jackman, 2010). Likewise, a paper by McIntosh (2011b) was the only one cited as the “background paper” for the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (2011) guidelines: “Prior to the age of two years, overnight time away from the primary caregiver should be avoided, unless necessary” (p. 1). On the basis of the Australian study, eight British professors and directors of eight British organizations wrote a letter to the Minister of Education requesting that proposed changes to the custody laws not be enacted (Hamilton, 2012).

More recently still, the Chair of the Child Psychiatry Department at St. Etienne’s Children’s Hospital wrote an article in France’s largest newspaper stating that he and 4,800 other professionals had signed a petition opposing any court-ordered shared parenting when children were under the age of six, citing only the Australian overnighting study as their evidence (Berger, 2014). [emphasis added – RW ]. For more examples of the worldwide impact of this one study see Nielsen (2014c).

In regard to the potential for woozling, the point is that policy recommendations and organizations’ guidelines should not be issued on the basis of only a few studies—and certainly not on the basis of any one study.

How to Discourage Woozling

One of the most effective ways to prevent data from being woozled or to counteract woozles is to encourage scholarly debate. In a scholarly environment, debates, critiques, and differences of opinion are encouraged and welcomed – and willingly shared with the media when the issues involve matters of public concern. Social scientists contribute to this scholarly approach by welcoming critiques of their work and by encouraging expressions of differences. Conversely, they discourage this academic or “anti-woozling” environment by chastising those who disagree with them for creating dissent or for being troublemakers and by reacting to critiques and debates as if they were personal insults or personal rebukes.

For example, referring to the fact that 32 scholars were unable to reach any consensus on certain issues related to shared parenting, the co-editors of the FCR journal affirmed that “Despite our preference for cooperative dispute resolution, we embrace conflict in the development of public policy. . . . Honest, direct, respectful disagreement moves us forward, not backward” (Emery & Schepard, 2014, p. 143). Or as Kuhn (1962) explained, for science to advance, some individuals have to be bolder than their colleagues in challenging the existing views.

So how do social scientists either encourage or discourage woozling by the way they react to criticisms of their work? One of the least sophisticated and most obvious tactics is to attack the people who are criticizing your work, rather than address their arguments—a defensive reaction known as making an ad hominem (Latin for “to the man”) argument. For example, you might accuse other scholars of being part of some secret conspiracy or a tangled web deliberately working to sully your reputation (Park, 2000).

Or you might imply that your critics have ulterior motives for criticizing your work—for example, accusing them of being fathers’ rights advocates (Johnston, 2007). You can also make personally insulting, belittling comments about your perceived “enemies.” Similarly, you can conjure up a “straw man” argument—caricaturing and exaggerating your opponent’s position. An even more aggressive approach is to attack the integrity of other scholars, accusing them of being impassioned, biased zealots with hidden agendas and nefarious motives. More combative still, you might hire a lawyer and literally threaten to sue journalists, editors, authors, or organizations who have published articles that are critical of your work.

In this defensive and deprecating context, words like advocate and impassioned are meant to insinuate that people who express a different view from one’s own are so biased and so blinded by their emotions that they deliberately misreport data to buttress their preconceived beliefs or positions. Their intense emotions override their ability or their willingness to think rationally or objectively about the topic at hand. In contrast, when these words are not being used to silence or to belittle others, an advocate is merely someone who upholds, supports, backs, proposes, or endorses a particular position. In accusing others of being biased, impassioned advocates, the underlying presumption, of course, is that one’s own work and opinions are objective and bias-free. In short, others are woozling the data, but you yourself are not. Sociologist Joel Best (2001, 2008, 2013) has written extensively about the fact that all researchers have certain biases.

Cognitive psychologists have also repeatedly documented that our pre-existing beliefs and our experiences influence our thinking processes, rendering all of us “biased” in that sense (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

One illustration of reactions that might unintentionally discourage a scholarly and welcomed exchange of ideas are the responses of the Australian researchers (McIntosh et al., 2010) to scholars who have criticized their study or have pointed out how their data have been woozled.

In a keynote address at a national conference, McIntosh (2014a) began by making disparaging remarks about two of the scholars who had critiqued her study (Nielsen, 2014c; Warshak, 2014). McIntosh (2014a) told the audience that Nielsen and Warshak were waging a “war” against her: “Sadly the use of the word war is no exaggeration. . . . For good measure, let’s add a few more adjectives: dull, unnecessary, divisive and retrograde” (p. 1). McIntosh went on to disclose that another social scientist who shared her low opinion of the Warshak paper had written a letter of complaint to the editor of the journal that had published the paper and to the American Psychological Association, which publishes the journal: “Professor Robert Emery describes the Warshak piece as ‘shoddy scholarship’ . . . ‘undeserving of time and attention’” (p. 2).

If what McIntosh reported about Emery’s conduct was correct, it can be contrasted with what he had written previously as the co-editor of FCR: “Honest, direct, respectful disagreement moves us forward, not backward” (Emery & Schepard, 2014, p. 143). McIntosh then posted her keynote speech on her Web site ( The Warshak paper that McIntosh and, according to her, Emery had so harshly denounced was endorsed by 110 prominent, international experts who agreed that the available research supports the recommendation that regular and frequent overnights for infants and toddlers need not be postponed—a recommendation that ran counter to both McIntosh’s and Emery’s opinions and counter to the way they had interpreted data from their own overnighting studies (McIntosh et al., 2010; Tornello et al., 2013). While telling the audience that the Warshak paper had an “attacking tone” and provided “an unbalanced literature review” (p. 2), McIntosh described her own work as providing “a thorough review” (p. 5) of the research (McIntosh, 2014a)—reiterating her previous statements that she, unlike other scholars including the 110 who endorsed Warshak’s paper, provides a “clear and balanced view” of the overnighting studies (McIntosh, 2014b). The statements in the keynote address echoed her earlier comments in a major Australian newspaper article, in which she was quoted as accusing Warshak and Nielsen of being “impassioned advocates who have sought to discredit me . . . to further political agendas” (Arndt, 2014).

These reactions to the Nielsen and Warshak critiques were reminiscent of the way the Australian researchers had castigated two other scholars who had written a negative critique of their study (Cashmore & Parkinson, 2011).

In their rebuttal paper Smyth, McIntosh, and Kelaher (2011) reprimanded Cashmore and Parkinson for giving “intense scrutiny” and “highly critical treatment” (p. 269) to their study, for making a “deliberate a priori analytic decision” (p. 265, emphasis added) and for “casting a shadow of doubt” over their study’s “value” (p. 269). In response, Parkinson and Cashmore (2011) pointed out that only a small portion of their article had been devoted to the McIntosh et al. study and characterized the reactions as “ruffled feathers.” Similarly, after Lamb had written about the weaknesses of their study,

McIntosh’s response (2012c) might be construed, correctly or incorrectly, as her implying that Lamb had ulterior motives: “For reasons unclear, Lamb’s account contains many and significant factual errors which may mislead the reader” (p. 499, emphasis added). These reactions to other scholars seem out of sync with their espoused belief that “It is fundamental to the scientific method and to the development of evidence based policy and practice that ideas emanating from all studies are scrutinized and subjected to robust debate(McIntosh et al., 2015, p. 112). Nor do these reactions to their study’s critics square with McIntosh’s responses when her own work as guest editor of a controversial issue of FCR was criticized for being biased and unbalanced.

In that situation, she praised the journal for its “willingness to uphold the legitimacy of academic debate and to source different points of view on complex issues” (McIntosh, 2012c, p. 212).

In sum, woozles tend to scurry back into their holes when scholars’ debates and critiques of one another’s work are forceful, but tactful; blunt, but not belittling; critical, but not insulting; and—in situations where the same woozled data keep doggedly resurfacing year after year—relentless, but not malicious.

Catching the Woozles: Ethical Responsibilities

A lie will go around the world, while the truth is still pulling its boots on, “Mark Twain supposedly wrote in the early 1900s (Shapiro, 2006). In 1710, satirist Jonathan Swift expressed the same thought: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it” (Shapiro, 2006). By whatever means data from certain studies become distorted into woozles, social scientists are ethically obligated to try to correct the misinformation and to do so as quickly and as diligently as possible, regardless of whether the data came from their own studies or from someone else’s.

Professional organizations have made it abundantly clear that social scientists are obliged to try to prevent their data from being misunderstood or misused – in short, to prevent woozling. For example, the Australian Psychological Society (2010) puts this responsibility squarely on the researchers’ shoulders:

  • “Psychologists take reasonable steps to correct any misrepresentation made by them or about them in their professional capacity within a reasonable time after becoming aware of the misrepresentation. Statements made by psychologists in announcing or advertising the availability of psychological services, products or publications must not contain any statement which is false, fraudulent, misleading or deceptive or likely to mislead or deceive” (p. 26).

Likewise, the American Psychological Association (2013) states that “forensic practitioners do not, either by commission or omission, participate in misrepresentation of their evidence nor participate in partisan attempts to avoid, deny or subvert the presentation of evidence contrary to their own position or opinion” (p. 16, emphasis added).

Social scientists do not all respond in similar ways, of course, when data from their study or from others’ studies are being woozled. For example, in response to two papers that had documented the extensive woozling and misuse of their study over a period of years (Nielsen, 2014c; Warshak, 2014), McIntosh et al. (2015) still felt that the “evidence” that their study had any impact whatsoever “is not strong” (p. 116). They also felt that the “suggestion” that their study had ever been linked with efforts to discourage overnights was nothing more than a “notion” (p. 114). Further they stated that “if” their study had any negative impact on fathers’ overnight time with their children since 2010, a newspaper article written by Arndt (2014) that discussed the Warshak (2014) consensus paper might be responsible:

  • “Media coverage of the Warshak article in Australia may have contributed to the disenfranchisement of fathers seeking shared-time arrangements with statements echoing the Warshak misrepresentation of our study” (McIntosh et al., 2015, p. 112).

After the Warshak and Nielsen articles were published in 2014, followed by Arndt’s (2014) newspaper article, McIntosh co-authored an academic article (McIntosh et al., 2014) and posted a statement on her Web site stating (McIntosh, 2014d) that their study was never meant as a warning against “all” overnighting—only against “frequent” overnighting (which in their study meant any more than three overnights a month for babies).

Further these Australian researchers stated, “While researchers have limited – if any—ability to control who uses their research and how their research is reported by others, our research team has exercised due diligence in informing others when we have felt that statements made by them misrepresent or overstate the findings of our research” (McIntosh et al., 2015, p. 116, (emphasis added). Metaphorically, they believed they had done a commendable job trying to catch the woozles emanating from their study.

Other scholars have responded quickly and assertively as soon as they become aware that data are being woozled and misused to make recommendations related to child custody issues. One example is Professor Patrick Parkinson at Sydney University’s School of Law (Parkinson, 2012).

In 2011 the British Parliament received a report from the Norgrove Committee that recommended against revising custody laws to be more favourable toward shared parenting (Norgrove, 2011). The Norgrove Committee had relied largely on two Australian studies (Kaspiew et al., 2009; McIntosh et al., 2010). Within a year of the Norgrove report’s release, Parkinson had published a paper in which he meticulously documented the many errors in the Norgrove paper—errors that could easily have become woozles if Parkinson had remained silent or had waited several years to write the paper. Two of the woozles that he swiftly and assertively dismantled were that, as a result of the 2006 Custody Reforms in Australia, the rates of litigation in court had increased and more judges were making shared care orders in cases where there was a history of violence in the family. As Parkinson wrote,

  • “It is at this point that I really start to hear warning bells ringing. The picture painted in the report states that the presumption has led to upholding of father’s rights over children’s needs and mothers being unable to disclose violence and abuse. This is disingenuous to say the least and to my mind, illuminates the agenda behind the research itself” (Parkinson, 2012, p. 5).

In the end, the British Parliament was not swayed by the Norgrove report. Parkinson had succeeded in catching the woozles. Another example of being a responsible “woozle catcher” is provided by Marsha Pruett, who had conducted one of the overnighting studies (Pruett et al., 2004). Referring to the fact that other researchers had been woozling their study by claiming that it reached similar conclusions to the studies by McIntosh et al. (2010) and Solomon and George (1999), Pruett confronted the woozle in FCR:

  • “Comparisons of these studies have led to distorted conclusions that result from faulty assumptions made that these studies look at similar outcome measures in similar ways, which they do not. . . Responsible scholarship acknowledges and elaborates on these differences so that they are clearly articulated” (Pruett & DiFonzo, 2014, p. 165).

Pruett also presented a workshop at a national conference on the topic of misrepresenting the research on child custody and parenting plans. Robert Emery, second author of the Tornello overnighting study (Tornello et al., 2013), presented the workshop with her (Emery & Pruett, 2015). Neither of them made any mention of how their own studies had been woozled and misused as evidence against overnighting. The most impressive example of scholars shouldering the responsibility of trying to “catch” woozles related to overnighting is the Warshak (2014) consensus paper endorsed by 110 international scholars. These scholars were trying to corral two woozles that had re-emerged in recent years: first, that overnighting should be delayed until children are older than four and, second, that babies should not spend more than three nights a month in their father’s care. These scholars debunked these two woozles with a large body of empirical research on infants’ attachments to their parents, the impact of babies being separated from their mothers in day care centres, the importance of fathers in the earliest years of childhood, and the findings of the overnighting studies. Their consensus was that there was no reason to postpone frequent and regular overnights for infants and toddlers. In terms of scholars working together to reach a consensus by debunking many of the woozles that had arisen in regard to overnighting, this paper exemplifies consensus building and “woozle catching” at its best.


In closing, several points are worth reiterating. First, woozling the data from research studies occurs in all fields of science, not just in social science and not just in those studies related to overnighting for infants and toddlers whose parents have separated. Second, no single person, no one event, or no one study can be held responsible for the creation or the promotion of a woozle. A constellation of factors, including the media and advocacy groups, carry the woozle along its path. Third, although some social scientists or journalists contribute more than others to the woozling of data from particular studies or on particular topics, their behaviour is not necessarily intentional or self-serving. Some people who contribute to woozling the data are as naive and unaware as Winnie the Pooh who duped himself into believing he was being followed by the dangerous woozle. Finally, social scientists and family court professionals whose work involves child custody issues should be on the alert for woozles by becoming familiar with the various woozling techniques that too often lead us astray.

More important still, we should be persistent in chasing the child custody woozles around the mulberry bush until we catch them—or at the very least, until we force them to scurry back into their holes. To do otherwise is to do a grave disservice to the millions of children whose lives are affected by child custody decisions and parenting plans that are based on distorted, inaccurate, woozled data.



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Policy or performance – Sark must chose

An open letter

January 2016 saw the Parliament of the tiny British island of Sark, off the French coast [Pop. approx. 600], discuss and vote on a new Children’s law. What is remarkable about this is that the island had not changed its legislation since the days of ‘Good Queen Bess’, i.e. Elizabeth 1 (1533 – 1603), in the early 17th century.

The population of all the Channel Islands is approx. 160,000, made up principally of: Jersey; Guernsey; Sark; Alderney; Brecqhou; Jethou; Chausey; Lihou; and Herm (some are uninhabited).

The all women committee in charge of the changes in Sark claim they are in favour of equal rights for fathers and mothers but the current draft law is closely based on the mainland’s 1989 Children Act –which is widely accepted as problematical and many of its positive aspects remain to this day unenforced. What is planned in Sark is for unmarried fathers to be able to apply for parental responsibility. But what of married and divorced fathers ? Where are their rights reinforced ? The answer appears to be ‘no where’, and ‘on no account’. Are they to get nothing for their commitment, their investment in society, and their covenant ?

There is no statistical data to suggest that the majority of first children born to Sark parents are born out-of-wedlock – but if they reflect modern UK trends then we can suppose that over 45% fall into that category. The next steps will be for the debate to be transcribed by Hansard, published (see ), and sent to the Ministry of Justice. Pending approval it will then be presented for Royal Assent.


by the


Report with proposition to Christmas meeting of Chief Pleas, 20th Jan 2016

The mistake every legislative body makes when reforming child custody law is to fail to distinguish between 1), the children of divorcees and 2). the children of neglectful or dangerous parents.

Instead of creating one law suitable for public law and another separate one for private law cases, they are irreverently treated as the same and then unceremoniously dumped into the same pigeon-hole.

Children of divorcees are invariably dearly loved by both parents and each parent would not want to harm a hair on their child’s head. But by definition the children of neglectful or dangerous parents (the public law cases) do not have that luxury; do not have that love, protection, of care and security.

In an era of the “Public Inquiry” detailing horrendous child abuse claims (for over 30 years), the state is often complicit in pretending not to know and of deliberately turning a blind eye to the very real issues (from Victoria Climbie to Savile). Certainly this has been the case in England & Wales – and most of the English-speaking world.

This error in drafting legislation, where treating children from two distinct categories as if one, has had consequences that have echoed down the decades. The reform of any law is expected to address explicit and particular issues, not ignore them or obfuscate them or aggregate them to a point where they lose their meaning. Perhaps the level of this blissful ignorance is partly due to the civil servants who are now finally in charge of legislative reform having last left their university studies some 20 years earlier. We can only hope that this is not the case in Sark.

Sark’s new law is supposed to deal only with ‘private law’ proceedings (not with public law) but the inclusion of so many references to external ‘guardians’ make one wonder whether this can be true. One wonder if the legislators are assuming that children of divorcing and separating couples experience the same risk of neglect and of being ‘at risk’ as derelict abusive parents (which is patently untrue).

According to the latest edition of Sark’s newspaper, Jan 2016,  which exhibited “well-founded criticism of her half-baked, half-hearted Children Law” the current proposals are a near copy of part of the present Guernsey law. It is said that Sark has left out all of the public law provisions in the Guernsey legislation which would have provided for child protection, care orders, a juvenile court and the usual government roles. But is that a bad thing ?  Sark may be right in attempting to devise divorce related legislation first. However, this view is confounded by the new law’s continual reference to guardians, of parents not being in control of their own children, and for some strange reason, higher priority is being given to include 10 sections on the parentage of children
born to ‘assisted reproduction’ or surrogacy rather than protection. As the paper observes: “Since when was that a burning issue in Sark ?”  (Ref, see page 2,

Time line

Beginning in the 1970s laudable attempts were made to reform child custody. There was a recognition that the modern nuclear family had undergone change. There were more women in the workplace and more equality in wages and salaries.

However, measures to reform child custody have (throughout the 20th century) still unconsciously been predicated on 19th century models of the women/wife at home looking after children and dependant on her husband’s income. When ‘no-fault’ divorce arrived this presented immense problems for the law, the family and society.

Bearing in mind this predisposition to a 19th century model there followed a series of child custody reforms all of which failed to achieve their stated goal. The most well-known of these is probably the “Children Act 1989.” As a rule of thumb 90% of the 1989 Act is taken up with ‘public law’, leaving private law to rub along as best it can under rules not best devised for it and therefore ‘unfit for purpose’.

To repeat the same experiment and expect a different and/or improved outcome is to paraphrase the definition of ‘insanity’. But this is what has happened with child protection law and custody reforms in the West since the 1970s.

The only exception to this iron rule are those countries that have treated children of divorce separately from those of mistreated children. Examples of which are France and Belgium (2006). Further afield there is the example of Australia (also 2006). [1]

This brings us to the actual changes that have been embraced by, for example, France and Belgium. Their governments and politicians have recognised that there is an alternative (indeed, several) to the 19th century model of single mother custody – specifically ‘shared residence’ and ‘shared parenting.’

The Council of Europe has endorsed ‘shared residence’ and ‘shared parenting’ for adoption by all EU governments in the near future. The advantages to the child, the parents, and the state are overwhelming. The downside, where they exist, are negligible compared with the hugely negative outcomes for children brought up in single mother households (SMH).

Shared residence and shared parenting is not new or ground breaking. [2] Provision was specially made for it in the 1989 Act (ref ‘any order’). Working papers from the Law Commission make it clear that hands-on parenting by both parents was formally known as ‘joint custody and was to be enhanced as shared residence rights.’ [3]

The hugely negative outcomes referred to above for children brought up in SMHs revolve around disruptive behaviour, criminality, drug abuse, and violence often seen in a linear progression from junior school to teenage years. Society has an unspoken fear of such delinquency and the current debate is about the cost and expense of that behaviour and the property (and sometimes human life) destruction to the taxpayer. This will remain unaddressed for as long as the present ‘silo’ mentality persists. All the modern evidence and research shows that the most effective antidote is to have a father present in the family unit – or actively engaged with it if divorced.

Michael Lamb is the recognised British authority on children and families and he supports measures to continue to integrate both parents on a daily and weekly basis. In the USA, Prof Warshak and Prof Linda Nielsen, among many others, are the leading authorities on shared parenting and child parent relationships. Linda_3Nielsen is also well-known for her research and book on father-daughter relationships.

Left: Prof. Linda Nielsen

The phenomenon of the ‘fatherless family’, i.e. fatherlessness, has been an upshot of the modern era which, prime facie, can be traced to the 1970s when easier divorces and changes to the welfare state emerged. But in earlier ages the episodes of World War Two (which gave us the 1956 crime spike) and the depression of the 1920s and 1930s resulted in social dislocation and permanent change. Early workers in this field, i.e. of the social impact fatherlessness, most notably included the celebrated Prof Norman Dennis.

Linda Nielsen, puts it in these terms:

“One of the most complex and controversial issues in family law and custody legislation is: ‘What type of parenting plan is the most beneficial for the majority of children after their parents separate ?’

More specifically, are the outcomes any better for children who continue to live with each parent at least 35% of the time than for children who live primarily with their mother and

spend less than 35% of the time living with their father ? In other words, is it in most children’s best interests to live in shared physical custody? More important still, is a shared parenting plan beneficial to children when their parents communicate poorly, have high levels of conflict, or have ended up in court or in prolonged legal negotiations in order to resolve their disagreements over the parenting plan ?

Put differently, do parents have to be cooperative and communicative and “voluntarily” both agree to this plan from the outset for shared parenting plans to benefit the children ?”

Linda Nielsen firmly concludes, as do most experts, that all the modern evidence shows that a child living for 35% of the time with their father is highly beneficial.

Anna Freud

If the turning point in the modern era of the custody saga was the early 1970s then we have to ask “Why ?” In part it is because of the emergence of no-fault divorce and its availability on a much more universal scale than previous divorce regimes allowed – especially to lower-income families which previously could never have afforded divorce or complied with the terms previously needed. Another part of the equation was that under the old divorce regime of, say, the 1950s ‘the guilty party’ could rarely expect to be granted custody of the children since would be seen as rewarding the party who had wrecked the family. No fault divorce, where no party could ever be ‘guilty’ threw this model into confusion.

Over a period of 5 years the divorce rate doubled from around 60,000 to approx. 120,000 and the number of children separated from one of their parents as a consequence more than doubled (families were then more likely to have 2 or 3 children). At this time Anna Freud’s book encapsulating the principle of the “Best Interest of the Child” surfaced. While superficially this research oozed confidence and reliability it was anything but soundly based. Anna Freud’s book was the product of her pioneering work in Austria before World War II and as such there were no guidelines or protocols to adhere to. That she was the daughter of Sigmund Freud may have allowed her more latitude and reverence among would-be critics than she deserved.

She was forced to move to England by the Nazi invasion of 1938 and during the war she continued to be well-funded by private donors allowing her to work first in clinics in blitzed London (now evolved into the Tavistock Centre) and then at Bulldog Banks. However, her work was almost exclusively with orphans of the blitz (and where fathers did exist they were not encouraged to see their children), and later at Bulldog Banks with six child survivors of Nazi concentration camps (a shockingly small sample size). This latter group had been born in the camps and had never known their parents or adults except for guards who would throw them food. They reached England in 1946 literally as feral pack-animal children unable even to speak but merely to grunt at one another. [4] NB. Children of divorcing couples never exhibit any of these characteristics.

Freud_80It is questionable whether Freud’s methods actually worked.[5] Certainly it is on the public record that her life-long partner Dorothy Burlingham (the separated daughter of the American millionaire family, Tiffany), submitted her children for Freud’s diagnosis and treatment and all four were made most unhappy with 2 committing suicide – one in Freud’s own home (perhaps as a symbolic act to express what she thought Anna Freud had done to her life). The children of Dorothy Burlingham appear to be the only ones that were not lifelong orphans, i.e. fatherless. Burlingham journeyed to Vienna to seek Freud’s psycho-analytical skills for her four children (two boys and two girls). She was convinced one or more of her children were suffering from depression and or psychosomatic illnesses. For the next 40 years Burlingham’s four children were effectively Anna Freud’s guinea pigs but for many decades the world would not know that her treatment of the Burlingham children was an utter disaster.

Freud also made the fundamental error of projecting her findings gleaned literally from traumatised blitz children and a handful of extremely damaged feral children and thought it could be made applicable to children who had grown up with two loving parents. And, as we can see from the Burlingham children’s saga, Freud was no more successful on a one-to-one treatment basis.

One suspects the courts were unaware of this and did not notice the flaw, taking matters at face value. They instead saw her work as a handy tool to help them get through a crisis of ever-increasing divorces and an apparently scientific answer as to what to do with ever-increasing numbers of children being made fatherless.

Post 1970, the judiciary increasingly felt that they were awarding custody using old formats and yet with no guilty party before them were they right to award custody to errant mothers ? By 1984 this uneasiness about the haphazardness had turned into a real concern. Therefore, in 1986 the Law Commission realising it had no hard data whatsoever about awards made in private law cases organised a survey of all England’s courts to assess the typical for of custody award. Perhaps to their surprise over 30% of awards made were joint custody. Only in the north was joint custody below 5% (indicating a sharp geographical divide perhaps based on industry or culture).

The result was the Children Act of 1989, which legalised ‘any order’ orders, including shared residence and shared parenting. However, the effect of this enlightenment was that the proposals became distorted and joint custody awards fell from 30% to 3% within 3 years. In other words, the object of the bill was totally defeated.

Public law

The difference between public law and private law cannot be underlined or emphasised enough. As mentioned above, the Council of Europe has endorsed Shared Residence and Shared Parenting as it sees the alternative – fatherless families – as detrimental to the common good. If not properly handled children of divorce can finish up experiencing as poor an outcome in life as abandoned and abused children. Such children then enter the ‘care system’ but this is something of an (oxymoron (i.e. having an inverted meaning).

CAFCASS produces reports for both public law and private law cases and the latter far out strip the former many times over (say by approx. 9 to 1).

Children who enter ‘the care system’ are not always being properly looked after by that care system. The anecdotal evidence can be seen routinely in the media, e.g. 2,000 children in Rotherham, Oxford, and Rochdale caught up in sex abuse scandals etc., [6] together with data trends (e.g. coroner’s reports, Public Inquiries, Gov’t statistics). However, beyond the more salacious “news” is the mundane but equally scandalous levels of abuse, i.e. neglect and physical abuse of children while supposedly in the protective custody of the state.

The evidence showing a linkage between being in the care system and then facing the criminal justice system extends back into the 1930s when the term “juvenile delinquent” (first coined in 1816) had passed into common parlance.

We can show the results of a variety of US surveys stretching back many decades which links family background to later psychological pathologies and criminal behaviour (an equivalent English survey of ‘outcomes’ for fatherlessness can be found in a pioneering book (“Farewell to the family ?” (pub IEA, 1996), by Dr. Patricia Morgan.

Shifts in public policy can have negative knock-on effects yet this is rarely publicised and put into the public domain. What then can we do to make the public more aware of these consequences and their lifestyle choices ?

It is not insignificant that the Prison Service has long recognised that a ‘fatherless’ young man is more likely to attempt suicide in the first few weeks of incarceration than a young man from a ‘normal’ family background.

‘Fatherlessness’ of both young men and women is a precursor for greater societal expenditure in remedying the effects. Regardless of whether they are ‘fatherless’ because of divorce, separation, or the child of an unmarried cohabitee or single unmarried women (all are single mother households, SMH), the child from these family background types are more likely to experience being taken ‘into care’ and / or in trouble with the law.

These same children will experience lower school qualifications, more periods of unemployment and have the greater likelihood of their mothers being admitted into mental health hospital as an out or in-patients, or “sectioned”. Too often the medical dimension of children realised in fatherless families has been overlooked in deliberations so it is encouraging that Sark has recognised its impact.

A positive aspect in this arena of poor educational achievement by children from fatherless families is seen when those same children are allowed more time with their fathers. Grades and behaviour improve. It is to be hoped that these distinctions are recognised in the on-going work of the Education Committee.

Not surprisingly the level of DV in such households towards the children or from the child to the mother, is far higher than in other households.

There are many causes of SMH as mentioned above (divorce, never married etc.) and each has its own characteristics – some worse than others. The one exception are lone mothers who are widows. Though they represent only 4% of SMH the ‘outcomes’ produced by their children (morbidity, mortality, criminality, scholastic attainments, etc.), are as good as for a two parent family.

A rose by any other name

It is regrettable that terminology well-known and familiar to the public is revised and altered so frequently. Everyone knows what custody means and only confusion is sown by 30 years of renaming the same thing. When booklets are produced by Sark or any other state, explaining terms such as custodianship, guardianship, or parental responsibility, access and contact, then who among the public actually reads them ?

Part II “Parental Responsibility” lists the Definition of “parental responsibility”. How is this different from parental guardianship ? If it is the same, then why alter the name if it is not to confuse or attempt to dupe the public ?

It is one thing for the courts and those working with children to put the needs of the child at the centre of all issues but it is quite another to put these rights ahead and above those of parents. To do so would rekindle the same legal situation endured when Trade Unions were above and beyond the law.

Without inalienable basic human rights how will parents ever be able to gift ‘in loco parentis’ to other adults ? Parents cannot sensibly ever be defined as having only responsibility rather than rights for that would produce an oligarchy of juveniles in cahoots with the apparatus of the state (both none tax-payers). Such a coterie would mean ‘the state’ and democracy, as we know it today, would cease to exist. What juvenile would look forward to an adulthood where he or she would actually lose rights and control over their own lives and the right to make their own choices ?

Much time has been devoted in many European countries to unmarried fathers and their rights. Some countries have higher rates of cohabitation than others, e.g. Spain has a high level. In the UK the rate of cohabitees can be measured by the number of households – just 11% of all households – and the majority do not have any offspring and 90% of such unions last no more than 18 months. (Ref. Sections 4-10).

To avoid the mistakes and downstream complications seen on mainland England it is essential that guardianship for both parents be unchanged (Sections 11-15).

If a parent has the power to appoint any individual to be the guardian of a child in respect of whom the parent has parental responsibility, see Part III (Guardians Appointed to Fulfil the Role of a Parent in Place of a Parent who has Died), then ipso facto that parent has guardianship powers and not simply parental responsibility powers.



[1] In the USA some individual states have adopted shared parenting for children of divorce.

[2] See ‘Supplement to Working Paper No 96’ (1987)

[3] Not to be confused with the American ‘joint legal custody’ which is not meaningful or even joint.

[4] See and

[5] Having spoken personally to some of these survivors (2014) it has been a revelation – R. Whiston.

[6] Telegraph, Christopher Booker, 04 Apr 2015


Green Shoots of Sensible Solutions ? If only.

 June 2015 saw the announcement by the Prison Reform Trust that Lord Laming was to head up their inquiry (yet another  one !) into what was going wrong with Britain’s child care protection system. [*] So reminiscent of previous attempts to not understand, but to instead proclaim an innocence that surpasses all understanding and adopt a “studied puzzlement” by those in authority, that this article from 2010 just had to be re-issued to convey not only the ignorance but refusal to learn.

Although this 2015 inquiry deals with “public law” cases, i.e. where children are taken away from parents deemed unfit and placed into a Local Authority’s ‘care system’, there are parallels with “private law” which is equally dysfunctional and upsetting for children (NB. private law embraces custody of children when their parent’s divorce/ separate and ‘at risk’ and Local Authorities are not factors). That said, the mishandling of both public and private law cases by the courts and the trauma they produce does result in greater likelihood that the children will come face to face with the criminal justice system particularly those who are in residential or foster care.

 First published  18th Sept 2010

(Tables omitted)

Iain Duncan Smith and the study issued by Centre for Social Justice (Nov 16th 2009) shows once again the misery caused to children by our clumsy family court system. The study of over 4,000 parents and children was commissioned by family lawyers at Mishcon de Reya. [1]

It has grabbed our attention, as all such explosive reports tend to do, and written headlines not only in the UK but overseas. But after the wringing of hands phase has passed, what next ? Will we simply let our political leaders add it to the mountain of similar reports, i.e. we and they decide to do nothing ? Will we ‘Suffer the little children . . . . . ’ while we argue about the solution which has been the order of the day for the past 30 years.

Ideology has always got in the way of finding a humane solution to this perennial problem. Since the failings of the Children Act 1989 first began to show, Whitehall has stubbornly cocked a deaf ear to all calls for change (see “Twenty Wasted Years ) They have then advised ministers who then wonder why they look so foolish, ignorant and untutored in the matter, e.g. Lord Falconer’s infamous remark in 2002 of the impossibility of “an automatic presumption of 50/50 contact” when other countries can manage it very happily, e.g. Sweden , Belgium.

The poll carried out by Mishcon de Reya to mark the 20th anniversary of the Children Act has led its authors to state that the Children Act 1989 is “not working” despite its good intentions. The poll (of 4,000 parents and children) validated everything that fathers groups have been claiming for over 20 years even before the Children Act of 1989. revealed that:

* 19% of children said they felt used in the separation
* 38% children never saw their father again once separated
* 50% of parents admitted putting their children through an intrusive court process over access issues and living arrangements
* 49% admitted to deliberately protracting the legal process in order to secure their desired outcome
* 68% confessed to indiscriminately using their children as ‘bargaining tools’ when they separated
* 20% of separated parents admitted that they actively set out to make their partners experience ‘as unpleasant as possible’ regardless of the effect this had on their children’s feelings

The Children Act 1989 is “not working” because 90% of it is aimed at orphaned or abused/neglected children and how local authorities must care for such children (termed public law cases). The Children Act 1989 is not written with divorce in mind (termed private law cases) or with the fate of children of divorce uppermost.

The above also validates the claims/theories of the late Richard Gardner (Gardner regarding PAS (parental alienation syndrome, 1992), so discursively dismissed by Sturge and Glaser 9 years ago [2] and reinforced one year later. [3]

With a General Election looming and the possibility of a Conservative government it might be prudent to examine some of the policies the party has so far espoused and which presumably will be adopted in the future.

Anything and everything ‘Green’ is fashionable among politicians; anything that will kick-start the economy is desperately dusted down; anything that will reduce our carbon footprint is willingly embraced. So a policy that captures all those aspects (and more by creating a fiscal and monetary stimulus) [4] yet will cost next to nothing to run, is one would assume, a sure-fire winner.

One of the promised policies of an in-coming Conservative government is a revamp of the family and divorce paradigm – and it is from this unusual quarter that unexpected green policy gains will emerge.

In the middle of a recession it will come as an appalling revelation that the present custody regime is not only the most expensive to the state but the most expensive to the parents. In addition, the present system perpetuates poverty and drives down consumer demand, aiding and abetting the prolonging of the recession. Some might recall John Prescott’s lament that he had to plan for a 40% increase in housing demand on the back on only a 6% increase in population.

The Conservative Party looks as if it is finally ready to grasp the nettle of divorce, and more precisely rectify the shambles of the child-father rupture in relationships after a divorce. The marginalisation of fathers is epitomised by the legal terms used; ‘contact’ and ‘access’ and ‘visiting rights’ – as if one’s own flesh and blood can be visited like animals at a zoo. But no one has bothered to investigate the costs to the nation or their negative green impact.[5] Inadvertently, it may be about to sow the seeds of a velvet recovery without realising it.

Independent of government anonymous policy shapers have advocated divorce and promoted cohabitation for 30 years. The freedom of the individual to choose their destiny no matter what the cost to others has been given precedence. The rights of the child (estimated by Centre for Social Justice at some 350,000), have been totally lost sight of in this stampede for personal adult liberation and expression.

There is a superficial argument to be made in favour of the positive economic impact of widespread divorce, namely it stimulates the economy by increasing the purchase of consumer durables such as fridges, beds and furniture etc. for the ‘second’ home.

However, after the initial spurt of spending on consumer durables, further purchases cease as the strained incomes of both new households can afford no more than the bare necessities for family survival. The purchase of holidays additional clothing, and shoes are depressed; the ‘distress’ sales of the matrimonial home and or motor cars do not result in bigger homes being purchased or more new car sales as might be expected had the couples stayed together.

Rather the depression spills over into quality goods and short circuits demand for ‘luxuries’ that a comfortably well off family might look forward to experiencing. The lower the couple’s income the greater the distress – a point well made in the 17th century by Jonathan Swift and Milton.  The former, seeing the latter’s predicament, observed that divorce should be confined to the relatively wealthy and that it would be disastrous for ‘the poor’.[6] Indeed, a whole chapter of Freakeconomics could be devoted to the economic absurdities of divorce.

Before the creation of the Centre for Social Justice, there was next to no mainstream research in this country that was not overwhelmingly in favour of mother-only custody, leaving father to ‘contact’ their children once a month or once a fortnight as the court and mother dictate. Why ? The contrary data that did exist was not well publicised outside academia and was not collated into a body of knowledge. Why ? One simple reason might be that universities have found it easier to secure funding from conservatively, nay, reactionary-minded grant making bodies. Before the Centre for Social Justice, the only organisations that persistently pointed year after year to the already existing data and therefore the elephant in the room were fathers groups.

Where there is a smattering of research into alternatives arrangements, i.e. shared or equal parenting, is it by design or sheer coincidence that the authors have chosen to examine the alternatives as they apply to ‘high risk’, high conflict families and have concluded therefore it is unsuitable for all families, e.g. papers by Joan Hunt, Ms Brenda Neale, etc. [7]

The radical feminist opposition is ideological, sociological and in part psychologically driven – “How can a divorced mother not have her child.” The fact is women have argued themselves into an equality box and now fathers want their share of that same equality; they want their share of the children.

Radical feminist opposition never encompasses or gauges the cost of their ideas will have on the public purse and never realise that a cheaper alternative, namely shared and equal parenting, is available. Why should they ? The never complaining tax-payer can be relied upon.

When cost saving and efficiencies have been a by-word – a totem – of government for 20 years, why has the most expensive form of child care, mother custody, not been subject to analysis ?

We have to look to Australia to find out what benefits can be derived from overthrowing our present blinkered thinking. In 2000 a paper was published by Paul Henman et al into the costs of the ‘contact’ regime adopted in post divorce settlements. [8]  This was followed up by a 2005 study of the same topic.

Paul Henman’s paper assumed, for ease of comprehension, that the cost of caring for of children for an intact couple to be 100% and that for separated couples the cost for similarly aged and numbered children will vary (+/-) from that benchmark. Thus, one would suppose a non-resident father with court permission for ‘contact; to the value of 20% in a year (approx. 2 days a week) would bear only 20% of the costs an intact couple with 100% contact/ maintenance costs could expect to expend.

Similarly, a resident mother with 100% custody but agreeing to the court order to allow the father 20% contact time might be expected to have to pay only 80% of the child raising costs. However, Henman shows that this is not the case.

Henman and his colleagues focus on the costs to the average and below average father and family unit which they term modest but adequate living standard’ and the low-cost standard’.

Using these two measures Henman and his colleagues estimated (see Fig 1) that the total cost for a non-resident father with regular 20% contact with a) one non-resident daughter aged six was $3,044 per annum at the ‘modest but adequate living standard’ (1st column), and b) one non-resident daughter aged six was $2,727 p.a. at the ‘low cost standard’ (2nd column).

At the ‘modest but adequate standard’ the estimated cost of contact for two children – in this instance a daughter aged six and son aged 14 – was $6,652 p a (3rd column) and $5,954 a year at the low cost standard (4th column) at the ‘low cost standard’ [9]

The various components of the budget costs are shown in Fig 1 with housing costs clearly the largest component cost of contact regardless of income.  The normal assumption that any non-resident parent (father) who has his children visit him for 20% of the year might be expected find the cost of contact to be around 20% of married couples’ yearly costs of caring for children. However, the data Henman and his colleagues uncovered suggests 20% contact time actually costs 40% to 53% of what it costs an intact couple to care for the same children in the benchmark 100% of the year.

In “Bang for buck” terms, the low-cost standard access time is the most expensive. In other words, the present custody system is disproportionately expensive on the non-resident parent i.e. the father, and as Fig 1 below suggests, disproportionately expensive to those with lower incomes.

This point is made much clearer later in his paper but an examination of the table (Fig 1) should suffice to shows discrepancies in the income available to spend on, for example, Leisure and Health.

In Table 5 (not shown here) parents in the ‘modest but adequate living standard’ have estimated costs of 40% for one child and 40% for two children.

However, parents in the ‘low cost standard’ face costs of 54% for one child and 50% for two children (weighted average across major Australian cities 39%:39% v 53%:49%). In Britain the majority of single mothers have less than 2 children and so face the highest unit cost – or rather, the state and taxpayer have the highest unit cost.

In the 2005 edition the example is given of a four child families at the ‘low cost level’ which spends 47% of their ‘disposable income’ and 71% of the ‘taxable income’ on children.

This is purely due to the smallness of the ‘small private income’ (wages, presumably) which on average amounts to $30,000 per annum and which requires significant government supplement to the household income in the form of ‘benefits’ usually in the order of $21,000 pa ($51,000 gross).

The ‘disregards’, dispensations, and passport benefits that were and are a feature of the British Social Security safety net have their opposite numbers in the Australian regime.

Compared with an adult couple households, sole parents face a range of different circumstances and expenditure concerns. While sole parents do face greater expenditure demands when raising their children there are measures to ameliorate it:

  •  “ . . . low-income sole parents are able to access a large range of substantial savings using their pension card attached to receipt of Parenting Payment Partnered. This saving is worth about $1,500 per annum.”

It might be reasonable to suppose that if the overspending (by 40% -54%) of fathers with 20% contact time would be reciprocated by a reduction of equal proportion for mothers with 80% residence time.

Unfortunately, Henman shows that this single saving grace of the present custody regime is not true, it is illusionary. The cost of one child in a single mother household is shown in Fig 2 (below). The difference in income between those single mothers working and those on benefit is enormous but their disposable income is very similar.

A situation arises where a sole parent in full-time employment spends on child care more than similar sole parents spend on child care and total costs. (e.g. Sydney $11530 v $3,050 and $4,670). This holds true whether the single mother is a full-time carer and not in the labour force or when her partner is not in the labour force (columns 4 and 5). In fact after child care costs the working mother is only marginally better off then her non-working sisters (e.g. Sydney $16,650 – $11530 = $5,120).

Table 6 (not shown here) displays the gross costs relevant to levels of contact. Where a mother of one child aged 6 in the ‘modest but adequate living standard’ category has 100% contact, i.e. the father has none, (and NB both parents work full-time in the labour market), she can expect to incur costs of $11,420 pa if living in Melbourne, with the national average being $10,360.

Where the same mother has 80% contact time (with 20% allowed for the father), the theoretical gain of 20% less costs to the mother (i.e. $2,284) fails to materialise ($11,420 – 20% = $9,136). Instead her costs are $11,210 demonstrating that the difference at the 80% level is insignificantly different from the mother with 100% custody and who denies the father a small amount of time.

Table 6 also displays the gross costs for a mother in the alternative income group, i.e. the low-cost category, who is not employed and has one child aged 6. At 100% contact time her costs are $5,770 if living in Melbourne. They decrease by only $30 (to $5,740) when her contact time is reduced to 80%. The weighted national average is $5,490 and $5,460 respectively (100% and 80%).

The degree of marginality in both actual dollar costs and as a proporti0n of income make the present regime untenable for both fathers and mothers. The state should question whether it should or needs to fund an overpriced system that where budget overruns are de rigueur.

This would take the form of state subsidies by the tax payer that need to be claimed under the present mother custody preferment to maintain the poverty level but would be unnecessary if the regime of child custody was altered.

Proportionately it is more expensive for a father/family in the ‘low cost standard’ to maintain 20% contact then it is for the ‘modest but adequate standard’ father/ family.  More precisely, where a non-resident parent (father) has contact with one child for 20% of the year, it costs between 51% and 56% of the costs of raising the child for a full year in an intact couple family at the ‘low cost standard’, and between 38% and 42% of an intact couple family at the ‘modest but adequate standard.’

Where a father is allowed 50% contact time his costs do increase – but do not more than double. This is due to the fixed cost element., i.e. housing costs (the biggest cost element), remains the same whether contact is 20% or 50% or 80% or denied and only zero % is available. Similarly, while mothers see very little decrease in their costs for 20% father contact, there is a greater saving at the level of 50% and 80% contact by fathers.

The corollary of this is that we deliberately chose a regime where the dividend is less disposable income and therefore less to stimulate the High Street. Four million divorced fathers experiencing 50% of their spending diverted for extraneous reasons can only be four million missed opportunity for retailers in the High Street.

The higher proportional cost of contact at the low-cost standard would seem to suggest that there is a basic set of unavoidable costs associated with contact which do not increase proportionally as the living standard rises (see Woods 1999).

The study comes to the conclusion that housing costs associated with providing mere ‘contact’ care are identical to those for caring for children for 100% of the year. The implication is that ‘shared residence’ and ‘joint parenting’ will not present any increase in costs to the public purse or upon the individuals concerned.

Indeed, the shift in responsibility to the individual and the ability of mothers to more freely enter the labour market would seem to indicate a lessening of the strain presently imposed on the Treasury. We might even speculate that it will enhance the quality of life for the child and its parents.

Green benefits include the reduction of “double journeys” to collect and then return the children to their mother. It results in substantial transport cost savings. Contact at the 20% level is equivalent, Henman calculates, to between 46% and 160% of those borne by an intact couple caring for children for 100% of the year.

The reason for these seemingly mysterious increases in the costs it takes to live one’s life as before is due in the main to the act of “separation” which reverses the economies of scale which parents enjoy as a couple sharing accommodation (see Whiteford, 1991; Whiteford & Hicks, 1993).

Fig 3 shows the total and child care costs for two children (aged 6 and 14). The beginnings of economies of scale can be seen with child care costs resembling that of Fig 2 for only 1 child.

In an adult household the cost of raising two or more children is shown in Table 3. Accepting that the age range and sex of children can deeply affect costs Fig 3 is premised on the near maximum of having a girl and boy requiring separate bedrooms, different clothes, leisure activities and toys etc. It therefore represents only one example of numerous permutations (other variants will occur where the primary carer is working full-time or part-time, and the need to rent child care).

Thus, in this illustrated example of “2 children – maximum’ (Fig 3) the average cost of raising two children (ages 6 and 14) at the ‘modest but adequate’ level (where both parents work full-time) ranges from $17,890 (not shown) to $20,420 p a.

The costs of raising a 3-year-old child in a single mother household who is in employment and in the ‘modest but adequate’ band the weighted average is $17,860.

For a couple household with two children aged 6 and 14 and with both parents in employment, and in the ‘modest but adequate’ band the weighted average is only marginally greater at $20,420.

In the above example the cost to a sole parent in the modest but adequate living standard level of a three-year old child is $17,860 pa (17.86). At the opposite end of the single parent scale, i.e. not in the labour force and who is a full-time carer, the cost of a child is $5,740 (see Fig 2).

  •  “This is a significant difference, due entirely to childcare costs of $12,630 per annum.”

The cost of a three-year child in the ‘low-cost living standard’ for a couple (one parent working full-time the other not in the labour force) is $4,910 p a, whereas for the low cost sole parent (not in the labour force) it is $3,500 p a.

The full version of Table 5 (not shown here) shows that at the ‘modest but adequate level’ the cost of a child decreases when the parent moves from part-time employment to no employment.

  • “For example, the 6-year-old child costs $8,280 per annum for the former parent, but $7,390 per annum for the latter. While childcare costs of $560 explain some of the difference, the rest results from access to pensioner concession cards accompanying receipt of Parenting Payment Single.”

Previous administration have baulked at the idea and not acknowledged the potential for savings will this be another false dawn ?



[*]  See and

[1] “Parental Separation, Children and the Courts” (Nov 2009)

[2] “Contact and Domestic Violence – The Experts’ Court Report”, Family Law, Sept. 2000, pp. 615-629. See also “Making contact happen or making contact work ?”, DCA Research Series 3/06 March 2006, Liz Trinder, Jo Connolly, et al, Uni. of East Anglia.

[3] “Making Contact Work” a Green Paper issued March 2001 by the LCD (see also CASC report)

[4] ‘Monetary policy’ is typically implemented by a central bank, whereas ‘fiscal policy’ is usually dictated by the national government.

[5] “Don’t fathers deserve help too ?” by Deborah Orr, The Independent, 8 June 2004.

[6] Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) noted the misery endured by his contemporary John Milton (1608-1674). Milton’s ‘Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce’ (1643), advocated easier divorce, followed by ‘Areopagitica’ (1644).;

[7] Child contact with non-resident parents” by Joan Hunt, March 2006.\t_blank and

[8]Estimating the Costs of Contact for Non-resident Parents: a budget standards approach.” by Paul Henman and Kyle Mitchell Journal of Social Policy (2001 edition). See also 2005 edition:

[9] Both examples, i.e. of one child and then two are based on Feb 1997 prices and of Sydney residence costs.

Britain’s problem of foreign-born ‘orphans’

The Slovak Embassy has been stung into action – quite why is still unclear – but it is thought to be regarding the children of its nationals living in Britain and how they (and their parents ?) are treated by England’s Social Services. Or at least that is what is thought to be behind the unprecedented meeting held on May 14th at its embassy to which many Eastern European consular officials and the heads of the English judicatory were invited (Appendix 1). It may have come as a nasty culture shock to realise that Britain even in the 21st century still confiscates children and offers them up for permanent adoption by total strangers.

In the absence of any firm information or Minutes of what when on at that meeting, these background notes have been put together to help shed light on what may be irritating our European partners.

There were, in 2013, over 6,340 children of foreign nationals from over 100 countries (such as Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Vietnam, Zambia etc), being looked after in England by Local Authorities.

With all that has happened in the first few months of this year alone – illegal immigrants crossing from Libya to Italy and Greece collectively paying millions of dollars to criminal gangs which organise the boats, we can expect those figures to soar.

A large proportion of them arrive as ‘unaccompanied minors’ and another minority are trafficked but all are here illegally. Without parents, family members, relatives or guardians, the burden falls on the taxpayer to pay for their accommodation and the staff needed.

London focus

Croydon probably has the largest single quantity of unaccompanied / illegal ‘child immigrants’ in England. Figures seen as the result of a huge F.o.I. inquiry by Advocacy Fund [1] in July 2013, show it has 1,188 such children from all corners of the world. Head and shoulders above all other countries is Afghanistan with over 600 children who have no parents. And, of course, some children were taken ‘into care’ because the local Social Services deem their foreign-born parents to be not caring for them in the right or expected way.

Following a long way behind is Iran with 92 children and one has to wonder what fores are at work when even poor Palestine which has been at the receiving end of repeated Blitzkriegs every two or three years from its neighbour the Israeli army and airforce, yet manages only 2 children without parents to look after them. Other countries, such as Syria, Sudan, or Eritrea, which have been less systematically destroyed, less taken apart, and have had fewer made homeless, manage numbers far greater than Palestine.

Nationality Number
Afghanistan (Asia) 633
Africa 1
Africa Remainder Of (Africa) 7
Albania (Europe Other) 41
Algeria (Africa) 18
Angola (Africa) 7
Asia 1
Asia Remainder Of (Asia) 5
Bangladesh 12
Burundi (Africa) 1
Central African Republic 1
Chad (Africa) 1
China 15
Congo (Africa) 20
Congo Democratic Rep. Of ( 7
Cote D’Ivoire – Ivory Coast 7
Egypt (Africa) 1
Eritrea (Africa) 76
Ethopian 7
Europe (Other) 1
Gambia (Africa) 1
Georgia (Europe Other) 1
Ghana 2
Guinea (Africa) 22
Guinea-Bissau (Africa) 1
India 6
Iran 92
Iraq (Middle East) 44
Kenya (Africa) 1
Kuwait (Middle East) 5
Libya 1
Malaysia (Asia) 1
Mali (Africa) 2
Mauritania (Africa) 2
Mongolia (Asia) 5
Morocco (Africa) 3
Niger (Africa) 1
Nigeria (Africa) 5
North Korea 6
Not Recorded 9
Pakistan (Asia) 42
Palestinian Authority 4
Russian Federation (Europe) 1
Sierra Leone (Africa) 10
Somalia (Africa) 15
Sri Lanka 11
Sudan (Africa) 11
Syria – Arab Republic 2
Turkey (Europe Other) 4
Uganda (Africa) 5
Ukraine (Europe Other) 1
Vietnam (Asia) 10
Total 1,188

The London-based Advocacy Fund goes on to claim that 6,500 children who are non-UK nationals are taken into Local Authority ‘care’ and are then denied Consular access. This is not entirely true. Some Local Authorities have no non-UK national children in care; some do not have a policy of notifying Consular officials when they do have non-UK national children in care, whilst other Local Authorities do have a policy of positively notifying the appropriate embassy concerned.

Given the various EU Treaties, Council of Europe accords and the Vienna Convention (1963), it is amazingly that many councils which must have, by law, internal legal teams to ensure they are compliant, are able to respond to the FoI. in too many instances that they “do not have a specific policy for notifying High Commissions & Embassies but will do so according to the needs of the child.” Is it at this juncture where England finds itselves in conflict with our EU partners ? Does our priority of putting the child first (CBI), no matter, what clash with their national sovereignty as to their right under the Vienna Convention to know what is happening to their nationals ?

Putting matters into a slightly wider context than just Croydon, the Table below shows the number of children of non-UK i.e. foreign backgrounds who entered into care in the London area (only) and /or were adopted in the UK.


LONDON Boroughs non-UK foreign nati0nals

(blanks indicate the council concerned made no reply)

No. of children taken into ‘Care’ How many children Adopted
Barking and Dagenham  Council 169 3
Barnet   Council 231 8
Bexley  Council
Brent  Council
Bromley   Council 51
Camden  Council 229 2
Croydon  Council 1118
Ealing    Council
Enfield  Council 37
Greenwich Council
Hackney  Council
Hammersmith & Fulham  Council
Haringey  Council
Harrow  Council
Havering  Council 17 1
Hillingdon  Council
Hounslow    Council 151 10
Islington  Council
Royal  of Kensington and Chelsea 99 29
Kingston Upon Thames  Council
London  of Lambeth 249 4
Lewisham  Council
City of London Corporation No Infor’n held
Merton  Council
Newham  Council
Redbridge  Council N/A N/A
Richmond Upon Thames  Council 0 0
Southwark  Council
Sutton  Council 0
Tower Hamlets  Council
Waltham Forest  Council N/A N/A
Wandsworth  Council
Westminster City Council

London Total




Hounslow  Council is interesting in that it has 151 children listed as being  in its care but has offered up for permanent adoption only 10.  Similarly, Lambeth has a low adoption rate of 4 in comparison with the 249  children in its care. By contrast Kensington and Chelsea with only 99 children in its care manages to shed its burden more significantly by arranging for 29 children to be adopted – a much higher percentage than most London boroughs. Yet the largest of all group, that for Croydon, reports zero adoptions of children.

From what we are able to ascertain only a small percentage of EU nationals are among the totals of children in care – most are from Africa or the Middle and Far East.

Outside London

The 33 local authorities of the Greater London area look after some 2,351 children and have arranged for the adoption of a further 57 children – but how many are cared for outside the capital and are offered up for adoption ?
prov_UK2Some 76 provincial towns and cities responded to the FoI request and this revealed that they looked after 3,806 children and had arranged for the adoption of some 61 other children (see Table below). In total therefore some 6,157 children and 118 children are respectively either looked after (cared for) or have been adopted in England and Wales (Scotland has separate rules and laws on this and others matters).
In addition to this must be considered those local authorities who a). do have children in care but did not reply and b). other local authorities which did not reply but who do not have any children in their care. Thus, if the ‘response rate’ was 50% of all local authorities balloted (and many did not respond), one cannot simply multiply by two the total shown above.

Indigenous children

On average 25,500 children are yearly taken “into care” by local authorities. The majority of them are from white families – very few, relatively speaking, are from Asian or Black families. That has been the picture from 2007 to 2011 as the Table below shows. [2]

prov_2007What is of concern today is the surprisingly high number or children offered up for ‘forced adoption’ and the generally poor way children are dealt with by the family courts in England. So great has been the alarm among EU embassies that a meting of consular official was held at the Slovak embassy at the beginning of May to map out the problem. One can only imagine that EU nationals now living in this country have seen their children abducted by Social Services and have found themselves powerless to prevent their actions or subsequent decisions, e.g. fostering or forced adoption, perhaps ?

The unvarnished figures tell a grim story:

  • There were 65,520 looked-after children at 31 March 2011 (an increase of 2% from 2010 and an increase of 9% since 2007).
  • 3,050 looked-after children were adopted during the year ending 31 March 2011 (a decrease of 5% from 2010 and a decrease of 8% since 2007. Similarly there has been a decrease in the number of looked-after children placed for adoption, i.e. 2,720 in 2007, to 2,500 in 2010 and to 2,450 in 2011).
  • 74% of children who were ‘looked after’ at 31 March 2011 were in a foster placement. [3]

This is a grim story in that this level of neglect or abuse should not occur to trigger child social worker intervention and at another level it is a grim indictment of parental incompetence if the grounds  for intervention prove to be justified.

What is of concern is that “forced adoption” still exists in 2015 in this country. Forced adoptions, one associates with the stigma of 70 years ago and unmarried mothers and the need (as was seen in those days) to find a “suitable family” in which to place the new child. The Welfare State of the post-1945 era obsoleted much of that need.

The majority of adopted children are aged between 1 and 4 years at adoption; of all looked after children adopted, 71% are in this age group with the average age at adoption being 3 years and 10 months.

Indigenous British children, i.e. those not of foreign parents and of non-UK nationals, are placed in foster care, as well as being looked after by local authorities in ‘residential homes’ (with yet others being permanently adopted).

prov_UKIt has always been a concern that separated fathers have never had the opportunity to foster or adopt their own children when the mother has been shown to be incompetent, and/or a danger, and/ or cannot cope and wants them to be adopted. But as we can see from Table A3 (left) family members (“relative or friend”), are offered the chance to care for such vulnerable children, and account for over 5,000 per annum. One can only presume these to be family members on the maternal side of the union. Yet it is the maternal side of parenting (mothers) that often present the gravest dangers to children (see also “Desperate times, desperate measures ?” ). Why, if fathers are willing (and some are), should they not be offered the chance to care for their child rather than be ignored and have their child adopted to some anonymous couples, at some undisclosed location, and some secret address ? A side-effect of same-sex unions (with the right to adopt children), may be to increase the chances of caring heterosexual fathers being able to care for or adopt their own children when the mother can no longer care (for whatever reason).

If we assume the continuing annual average number of all children taken into care is still at the 27,000 level, then from the preceding information we can deduce most will be indigenous children and very few trafficked or illegal children or legal children of EU national currently working in the UK.

But we should put these figures into a more manageable context – if 3,050 children pa are ‘looked-after’ by local authorities this translates into 59 children every week of over 10 children for each working day.

As for adoption (the irrevocable and irredeemable legal change of a child’s status) a government press release of Sept 30th 2014 is almost triumphant in announcing that:

  • “Records have been broken today with more than 5,000 children placed in loving, stable homes in the last 12 months – an increase of 26%.”

The Dept of Education released its first ‘Statistical First Release’ under the Coalition government on Sept 28th 2011 honestly believing that by increasing the number of children adopted (which it had managed to do), the sum of human happiness would be increased. In 2011 the number of children adopted during the year and who had preciously been in the “looked after” category amounted to 3,050. Three years later in 2014 that figure for adoption had been exceeded and had reached 5,000.

Fathers groups have long pointed out the negative effects this is having on children, parents and society as a whole. Parents who have thier chidren forceably adoptyed have no where to turn but to fathers groups who similarly have thier chireln forcably snatched from them by the courts when they divorce, and so can share the sense of greif these othes parents experience.

For the government this increase in adoption is a ‘victory’ bearing in mind the shortage of people previously prepared to care for other parents’ children. After foster care and adoption in general and its figures had been in the doldrums and had always been viewed (if at all) as a Cinderella aspect of modern society the change in attitudes can be seen a welcome. Certainly there is a case for some adoption and for some foster caring but at what point does it alarm foreign governments ? That seems to be the point we have now reached.

Mixed messages

Confounding the data is a report of Nov 11th 2014 claiming that the latest figures show the number of children put forward for adoption by local councils in England has fallen by almost half (50%) in under a year. [4] The figures were released by the Adoption Leadership Board (ALB).

In a 3 months period in June 2014, there were 960 initial decisions to place a child for adoption, compared with 1,830 in a 3 month period in Sept 2013. The explanation for this is thought to be a court ruling by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, in which he criticised the “sloppy practice” of social workers when bringing cases for adoption before the courts. He considered they were not looking closely enough at all the other options. He also implied that, at a time of tight budgets for local authorities, ‘adoption’ might be seen as a cheaper alternative to helping troubled families or foster carers.

Munby said there had been four cases during 10 days in July alone in which judges had expressed concerns about inadequate analysis by social services in support of the case for adoption. Sir James Munby, as can be seen in Appendix was but one of many high ranking legal officers attending the Slovak Embassy meeting.

So one rather suspects we are somewhere close to a ‘cross roads’ in care and adoption matters. How it will play out is anyone’s guess.



Appendix 1

Name Capacity Embassy / Institution
H.E. Žantovský Ambassador Czech Republic
H.E. Wlachovský Ambassador Slovakia
The Rt. Hon. Sir James Munby The President of the Family Division for England and Wales UK, Court of Appeal;Family Division for England and Wales
The Rt. Hon. Lady Justice Jill Black Head of International Family Justice UK, Court of Appeal
The Hon. Mr Justice Cobb UK, High Court of England and Wales
The Hon. Mr  Justice Keehan UK, High Court of England and Wales
The Hon. Mr Justice Moor UK, High Court of England and Wales
The Hon. Mr Justice Peter Jackson UK, High Court of England and Wales
The Hon. Mr Justice Newton UK, High Court of England and Wales
The Hon. Mrs Justice Theis UK, High Court of England and Wales
The Hon. Mrs Justice Parker UK, High Court of England and Wales
The Hon. Mr Justice Holman UK, High Court of England and Wales
Ms Mairead McGuinness Vice-President European Parliament, Ireland
Ms Julia Pitera Member of the Committee on Petitions European Parliament, Poland
Mr Peter Jahr Member of the Committee on Petitions European Parliament, Germany
Ms Mina Petrucci EPP PETI Adviser European Parliament
Mr Robert Bray Head of Unit, Secretariat, Committee on Legal Affairs, DG Internal Policies European Parliament
Ms Angela Wilson Social Work Service and Policy Manager UK, CFAB
Mr Anthony Douglas Head of CAFCASS UK, CAFCASS
Ms Helene Clift Legal Director UK, ICACU
Ms Samantha Marsh Case Manager UK, ICACU
Imogen Adams-Stiell Senior Case Manager & Joint Head of Unit UK, ICACU
Ms Luise Woodward Team Leader Child Protection UK, Department of Education
Ms Hayley Griffiths Children’s Policy Officer UK, Consular Directorate,  FCO
Sir Mathew Thorpe Advisor to the Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic UK / Slovakia
Ms Andra Cisárová Director Slovakia, CIPC- Central Authority
Mr Boris Machút Case Manager Slovakia, CIPC- Central Authority
Ms Helena Latáková Case Manager Slovakia, CIPC- Central Authority
Ms Katarína Zavacká Case Manager Slovakia, CIPC- Central Authority
Mr Juraj Pagáč Case Manager Slovakia, CIPC – Central Authority
Mr Juraj Sušienka Case Manager Slovakia, CIPC – Central Authority
Igor Pokojny Head of Consular Section Slovakia
Mr Kornél Tóth Representatives Hungary, Central Authority
Ms Cserjés Edina Consul Hungary
Mr Michal Mazurek Consul Poland
Ms Agnieszka Stępniak Senior Consular Officer Poland
Ms Maria Anguelieva-Koleva Head of the Consular Office Bulgaria
Ileana Stănică Labour and Social Affairs Attaché Romania
Ms Penelope Langdon UK, The President’s Office
Ms Elizabeth Stewart Editorial & Programme Director Embassy Magazine/Embassy Events
Mr David Williams Queen’s Counsel
Ms Elen Lewis Director of Legal Services UK, Peterborough
Mr Edward Bennett Barister & Editor International Family Law UK
Ms Helen Newman Solicitor UK, Pritchard Joyce & Hinds
Ms Marie-Claire Sparrow Barrister UK, EFL Chambers

Appendix 2

Number of children up for adoption halves

BBC News 11th Nov. 2014

The number of children put forward for adoption by local councils in England has fallen by almost half in under a year, the latest figures show.

In the three months to June 2014, there were 960 initial decisions to place a child for adoption, compared with 1,830 in the three months to September 2013. The figures were released by the Adoption Leadership Board (ALB).

Last September, the most senior family court judge criticised the “sloppy practice” of social workers when bringing cases for adoption before the courts and said they were not looking closely enough at all the other options. President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, also implied that, at a time of tight budgets, adoption may be seen as a cheaper option than helping troubled families or foster carers and warned about “resource issues” affecting local authorities’ thinking.

The ALB says the drop in adoptions may have been influenced by recent court judgements in care and adoption cases. The board, which was established by the government as part of a shake-up of the adoption system, said applications for court orders allowing a child to be placed for adoption had fallen by 34%.

There had also been a fall of 54% in the number of placement orders granted by courts, from 1,650 to 750, it said. In recent years, adoption figures had risen to record levels, with an increase of 63%, the ALB said.

The number of children adopted across the UK has risen from 3,100 in 2011 to 5,050 in the last year (2013). ALB chairman, Sir Martin Narey said:

  • “It is clear from my discussions with social workers and managers in local authorities and in voluntary adoption agencies that there is a belief that the law has been fundamentally changed by a number of court judgements. So I am pleased to produce this simple myth-busting guide – drafted by a senior queen’s counsel – to what those judgements do and do not say.”


Appendix 3

Record number of children adopted

Gov’t Press Release. Published 30th Sept 2014

Records have been broken today with more than 5,000 children placed in loving, stable homes in the last 12 months – an increase of 26%. The statistics show that 5,050 children were adopted between April 2013 and March 2014, a huge increase on the 4,010 children adopted the previous year.

Today’s announcement (30 Sept 2014) acts as proof that the government’s reforms are resulting in a world class adoption system, ensuring children are placed faster with their new families. Overall, adoptions have increased by 63% in the last 3 years, from 3,100 in 2011 to 5,050 in 2014.

Children and Families Minister, Edward Timpson, who has 2 adopted brothers, said:

  • It’s great to see that the number of children adopted from care has risen to the highest level yet. However we refuse to be complacent and we know there is more to be done.

Chief Social Worker for Children, Isabelle Trowler, said:

  • “We know adoption can be an excellent outcome, helping to ensure children get the love and stability they need.”

In the last 12 months, the government has among othermeasures, removed invisible barriers by ensuring ethnicity is not prioritised over other factors, such as the ability to provide a stable, loving home




[1] The Advocacy Fund appears to be a franchise group researching and examining international family law reforms. The Fund branch based in London, compiled a large amount of data from FoI requests which were then to be published in July / August 2013 but not much has appeared so far (May 2015).

[2] See

[3] See

[4] BBC news 11 Nov 2014


Some further source references:

Source: SSDA903. i.e. returns collected from all local authorities. This information is published as part of the Statistical First Release ‘Children Looked After by Local Authorities in England (including adoption and care leavers) year ending 31 March 2011’. The Statistical First Release can be found at: [1]…  and the relevant data are contained in tables LAC1 and C1 which can be accessed via the Excel link “Local Authority summary tables” and “England summary tables” respectively on the release’s web page.  .


Domestic Violence – a 20 year retrospective

It is almost 20 years since the publication of a British Gov’t survey into DV (domestic violence) that no one wants to refer to and, in fact, has never been cited in any official reports into domestic violence since that date.

I am, of course, referring to ‘HORS 191’ (Home Office Research Study), published in 1999. This was the most comprehensive and objective study of DV ever undertaken and has not been bettered since. It was based on many thousands of people responding to secret questions (on a computer) as part of the 1996 BCS.

The results were not what the radical feminists lobby wanted to hear, for the results put the overall level of annual violence at only about 4% of the population. This did not fit in with the much repeated ‘1 in 4’ mantra (25%) which was the mechanism they used to squeeze ever more millions of pounds of funding out of government year after year.

It took until 2013 for official ONS data to show what we all knew, namely, that women were are aggressive and as violent as men (see Appendix). [1]

DVmyth_1The mantra and very definite impression given to the public was that all women were at risk; that the risk was the same regardless of class, or income,  age, or ethnicity. But none of those were proven to be true, which explains why HORS 191 disappeared from the collective consciousness so totally and without trace.

So for that reason alone it is worth revisiting the topic and refreshing what we learnt from HORS 191. Firstly, HORS 191 did prove there was a linkage between age and DV or threats of DV – but not the one broadcast to the nation. In the Table (above), the age group 16 – 24 experiences the worst number/frequencies. However, in the Table below, using the same data, we see that the ‘4%’ (referred to earlier), is found in both of the columns (highlighted in red) and only where the two types of acts are aggregated do they exceed 4% due mainly to the age group 16 – 24. Why should we be shocked by this ? We depend as every other nation does, on young men capable of quick action and aggression to fill our all the roles in our Armed Services and for them to undertake dangerous missions.

DVmyth_2With increasing age, the level of violence, or threat of DV reduces so that by the age 50 – 59 it is at it lowest level (and what violence remains at this age is supplemented, at least in part, by carer threats and violence as the person ages).

If we look more deeply into this same Table and work out the averages we see the ‘averages’ also trending downwards (Table above). The blue column confirms the downwards trend associated with age but the red (horizontal) trend does not – this actually increases. The single reason for this is the large percentage of 12.7% found in the 16 to 24 age group. When that one figure is removed the horizontal average falls into line at just over 4%.

DVmyth_3In graph format, the three column groupings of threats of DV, actual domestic assault and combined threats with actual DV show a decline as age increases.

The other claim frequently made is that DV occurs across all classes and income groups. This is partially true but is more of a ‘factoid’ than a fact. [2]

The Table below, again taken from HORS 191 (pub 1999), shows DV victims by ‘Household social class. It is quite clear that women from Professional and DVmyth_4Managerial classes are far less likely to encounter DV or threats of DV. For example 2.1% versus 7.6%.

Of course, one could argue that ‘class and culture’ militate against upper middle class women stooping to involve themselves in police matters but Erin Pizzey’s experience, herself the daughter of a diplomat, mitigates against that initial supposition.

What is curious in this Table is the ranking of ‘Skilled non-manual’ and ‘Skilled manual’ in terms of DV. From Professional to Unskilled one might have assumed a steady trend upwards but unaccountably ‘skilled non-manual’ workers appear to be more violently inclined than expected while the presumably less enlightened ‘Skilled manual’ workers are far less violently inclined than either the ‘Skilled non-manual’ and the ‘Semi-skilled.’

These finding is portrayed in graphic form in the diagram to the right. Again the three trend lines represent Threats, Domestic assault, and Threats plus Domestic assault.

The next socio- economic category is the ‘ethnic’ one. In the past, Home Office statistics have shown white men as predominately sex offenders (say, 90%), and white women as predominately the rape victims (again approx. 90%). This situation is amplified by the Table to be found in the Appendices relating to ‘Homicides with a Sexual Motive.’ While admittedly not restricted to purely rape offences, it does give a flavour of the ethnic preponderance and ‘departmental thinking’ of the late 1990s

However, that was in 1997-98. Today we know from the ‘grooming’ stories by Asian men of white teenagers, the picture is very different. That said, the official view by for example HM Inspectorate of Probation in ‘Domestic Violence: A Literature Review’, by Mary Barnish (Sept 2004), of DV and of gender can be summed up in this way:

  • “Amongst women, risks of domestic violence do not differ significantly by ethnic origin: about 4% of all ethnic groups said they had been victims in 1995. The pattern was somewhat different for men. Asian men were much less likely than white men to say they had been assaulted by a partner.”

So it is with some caution we have to treat these 1999 ethnic figures for ‘proportion of women aged 16-59 victims of domestic violence’. We also have to bear in mind that since 1999 the total figure for DV has had to include rape in order to maintain the numbers even though this confuses the issue and is misleading.

DVmyth_6The disproportionality once found in HO rape statistic has all but disappeared in the Table (right), with all ethic groupings being much of a muchness  in their alleged threats towards women. Attention is drawn to this Table because in recent year’s rape has been include in the domestic assault/violence figure to help sustain the myth of an on-going crisis. It would not be politically acceptable if most rapes were shown to be committed by Asian men of men from the West Indian but no one has ruffled feathers if 90% are officially committed by white men (as a guide see Appendix 1).

Domestic assault/violence and rape are two distinct forms of crime where the former has no overtone of sexual penetration or threat thereof, but it highlights how rudderless we have become as a nation in identifying social problems for ulterior motives, i.e. money. One should add that given the propensity to adopt a ‘ghetto’ mentality the Pakistani /Bangladeshi percentages in particular should be viewed with a degree of caution. Indian and Black may also tend to adopt a ghetto mentality especially in relations to the police (and which may extend to the unemployed white working class); they are nonetheless more likely to engage with the host community at social, political and work levels.

This is not Islamophobia but merely pointing out the consequences of a religion which sees itself as different to the rest of mankind and could, therefore, be said to be a mirror image of Judaism, which also sees itself as distinct and different (and superior ?) from everyone else. It’s interesting to note that both religions have engineered themselves into being seen as victims of oppression by a greater society and have adopted victimhood status.

The Table above shows Whites as more likely to be violent or to use threats than any other of the ethnic groups – but the divergences are small. Most are around 3.6% with the exception of Indians at 2.1%. Matters move closer together in the Domestic Assault column where Whites at 4.2 are overtaken by Pakistani /Bangladeshi at 4.3%.

Setting all that aside for one moment there is a yet greater difference in outcomes related to domestic violence, and that is marital status. This is one area within governmental control but yet is one where government has knowingly not altered course and decided to be too dim to understand its own actions and reforms

Immediately one can see the folly of government reforms (since 1971) leading to a loosening of marriage bonds and an encouragement of cohabiting. At all levels the married women is the least likely to be affected by DV as the Table here shows – yet to listen to radical feminists propaganda, the greatest danger to a woman is to be married – so that’s’ another myth is exploded (in fact, for a woman to be ‘married’ to a lesbian carries a far higher risk of abuse than anything shown here).

DVmyth_7Not surprisingly, the ‘Separated’ and the ‘Divorced’, but particularly the Separated carry the highest incidences of assault or threat of assault. The difficulty in interpreting this  dataset is the slovenly way ONS categorises components. It is now common for cohabiting couples to be included with married ones and this tends to corrupt/bias data in more recent years.

However, if as might be reasonably expected this 1999 data series is when a clear demarcation was kept so we can read more into it than more recent datasets. Thus, married are at the lowest level –  lower than cohabiting – while divorce (exclusively reflecting married couples), is lower than separated, which most probably reflects formerly cohabiting couples.

The cost to the state in arbitrating in these families (by a factor of up to 20) typically to be found in police call outs, the family courts and in custody disputes, shows a clear cost disincentive for cohabiting and easier separating yet this is the very path government has promoted for 20 years.

The ‘Never married’ should not be overlooked in this examination. Though lower than Separated’ and the ‘Divorced’, they are still well clear of married couples in experiencing DV. Taken together the 5 categories above can be broken down into just two – the married and the non-married. Women who are divorced, separated, cohabiting or never-married are, in essence, all ‘single’ women. One can assume they have transient male partners, some of whom will be abusive or with whom they will quarrel and argue and will then call the police sometimes as an act of spite.

DVmyth_1AALook at the bar chart (left) analysing the ‘characteristics associated with being a victim of domestic violence’ in the 2011 – 2012 Crime Survey. The first two items show men as being victims of DV in more cases than women.

(click to enlarge)

The following rankings, e.g. by age and then by marital status, underscore the 1999 findings but it has taken over 10 years for this to gain widespread acceptance in other government reports. The other feature is the consistency. Take for instance married women shown here as the lowest and at 1.2% which is the same level found in the 1999 survey.

The missing piece of this jig-saw is ‘unemployment’ and its role on DV statistics. Under “Employment status” HORS 191 sets out a Table based on 1). working full-time, 2). working part-time, and 3). in education. But nowhere does it list incidences were the persons are ‘Unemployed’. That is the missing piece.

Speaking of the general public’s knowledge, no one knew about ‘domestic violence’ in 1981 – it had not entered our lexicon – and no data was collected by police until 1993. The graph (shown in Appendix 3), taken from the British Crime Survey (BCS) is arguably, therefore, very misleading. The rise of radical feminism and activism as a tool for control and power became self-evident in 1991. The history of harassment suffered by Erin Pizzey at their hands, the events and lengths some people were prepared to go to, from 1971 – 75, and then up to 1981 are best read at . What is not in dispute is that having been alerted to the phenomenon of DV, numbers shot up – but they also began to soon afterwards decline, i.e. by 1997. This is one of the best kept secrets.




Appendix 1

Ref: “Focus on: Violent Crime and Sexual Offences, 2011/12

ONS data released in Feb 2013 showed that DV among both married men and women was equal at 3.4% (see Table 4.08 below). This was based on the ‘Crime Survey for England & Wales’ in 2012. In fact, non-sexual abuse of men by their partners was greater than it was for women at 2.3% and 1.8% respectively.

As we have seen in the main text above, those proportions for divorced, separated, cohabiting couples and the never-married bear little resemblance to married couples. Selected items of comparative interest are shown in red in the Table.


Emily Dugan wrote in the ‘Independent‘ of a man willing to tell his story (most do not); of him suffering 2 years of abuse at the hands of his girlfriend; and of being too embarrassed (and loyal to her) to report her to the police. In the end he had to sleep in his car for weeks before speaking to his local council, who found him a place at a men’s refuge. (see, “Domestic violence: ‘As a man, it’s very difficult to say I’ve been beaten up’, Independent, 14 April 2013. ).

Appendix 2

While in the past the assumption has been based on this sort of data (see below) that most assaults and offences were committed by white males this is now being challenged. Arguably White women would be more comfortable, culturally speaking, relaying to the police about crimes and assaults than newly arrived ethnic groups.

There has always been something amiss with Home Office record keeping in relation to diversity and criminal offences committed and wishing to avoid community offence. It is difficult to imagine only White men committing homicides with a Sexual Motive in 1997 – 98.  Indeed, the prison population has reflected this perhaps more accurately than H.O. figures with Muslims making up the largerst minority in our prisons for a good many years.


Appendix 3

Decreasing levels of DV

Prior to 1993 police did to collect data on ‘domestic violence’ incidents and the nearest category recorded by police was loosely termed ‘domestics’ (Code 29), which just as easily could have been breaches of the peace, or alcohol related behaviour, or disorderly conduct.

DVmyth_10Figures taken from the London Police Service (for the year 1999) list a total of 46,806 ‘call outs’ under “Code 29.”

They recorded them as domestic ‘incidents’ (embracing both violent and non-violent) and excluding duplicate and repeat calls relating to the same incident with 666 related to sexual offences and 45,997 listed under ‘violence against the person.’

The modern trend in incidents of domestic abuse is shown in the above graph (see ‘Full Fact’), with a horizontal trend line inserted into official figures. The study giving rise to this was published in 2011 and spanning, as it does 1981 to 2010, we can clearly see the trend over time firstly upwards followed by a


persistent downward attitude (and this despite a wall of sound since 1993-94 warning us all of increasing levels of DV against women). The question to be asked is how did the number of incidents apparently jump from approx. 46,800 to 1,000,000 (1 m) in a few years ?

More curious is this claim, to be found is a 2013 document, “A Call to End Violence against Women and Girls Action Plan 2013”, [3] which found that

  • “However, last year around 1.2 million women were victims of domestic abuse and around 400,000 were victims of sexual assault.”

The graph here shows that the 1.2 million level was reached in 1993 and has been falling ever since. To re-emphasis this point the graph below taken from the BCS of 2009 and including ‘all’ violent crimes in England & Wales confirms this downwards trend.



[1]Focus on: Violent Crime and Sexual Offences, 2011/12” published Feb 2013. See  Appendix 1 above. See also  ‘DV statistics get a spanking’, .

[2] A factoid is a newly coined word originally described by Norman Mailer in 1974 which describes a questionable or spurious (unverified, false, or fabricated) statement presented as a fact, but without supporting evidence. Something fictitious or unsubstantiated that is presented as fact, devised especially to gain publicity and accepted because of constant repetition.

[3] See  (page 2).


Myths of Innocence

(The Matriarchy Strikes Back ?)

When She Was Bad…: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence

by Patricia Pearson
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) , October 1, 1998.

While US national crime rates have recently fallen, crimes committed by women have risen by 200%, yet we continue to transform female violence into victimhood by citing PMS, battered wife syndrome, and post-partum depression as sources of women’s actions.
When She Was Bad” convincingly overturns these perceptions by telling the stories of such women as Karla Faye Tucker, who was recently executed for having killed two people with a pickax;  Dorothea Puente, who murdered several elderly tenants in her boarding house;  and Aileen Wuornos, a Florida woman who shot seven men.  Patricia Pearson marshals a vast amount of research and statistical support from criminologists, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists, and includes many revealing interviews with dozens of men and women in the criminal justice system who have firsthand experience with violent women. When She Was Bad is a fearless and superbly written call to re-frame our ideas about female violence and, by extension, female power.

The Matriarchy Strikes Back

June 13, 2002
By southpaw68 “southpaw68”  (florida)

The author Patricia Pearson is an independent-minded feminist who critiques foibles in the philosophy of her other sisters; namely, that women are morally superior to men and don’t do as much violence against others. Or if they do, they only do it because they are oppressed by the patriarchy. They are victims.

Pearson wants women to be treated like adults, not children,  to be held to full account for their wrong doings in the justice system. She believes that women are equal or capable of being equal to men in all spheres, including combat. (This argument about equality in combat some think is erroneous except where weapons are involved).

If the sexes are equal, she implies, then they should have equal punishment for their crimes. People and women should stop making excuses for women’s crimes such as pleading temporary insanity, being a battered wife, being abused,or having PMS. Chivalry in the justice system should not mete out lighter sentences for women who commit similar crimes that their male counterparts do.

Pearson mixes her work with juicy stories about women’s’ crimes for the delight of the tabloid minded, along with a scholarly analysis of what it all means. In that regard she makes serious, even dull, work approachable by the mainstream reader.  She talks about how the nature of female aggression can also include things overlooked by society such as vicious slander against enemies, and “…an acid bath of words, the children used as pawns, the destruction of property, (and) enlistment of community as a means of control…”

[This type of Domestic Abuse is now outlawed in England & Wales but only time will tell if it is aimed only at men or will also be used to imprison women – Ed]

She speculates that children dying of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) may have been purposely neglected by their mothers who were having crazy thoughts about wanting their children dead. She thinks that women are not as naturally nurturant in motherhood as society says they are. Society has a hard time seeing the true nature of the female and therefore has problems dealing with women gone bad.

[Certainly the figures for SIDS in England & Wales have collapsed, from approx 1,500 to a few dozen, following widespread publicity and research into the phenomenon – Ed]

Pearson even hints around that children are citizens with a ‘right to life’, are not possessions of their mothers, and that women should be responsible for their birth control – these statements have controversial implications for abortion and parents’ rights issues.

[Though it makes sense since women have ‘veto’ powers over many thing we take for granted, from income expenditure, car purchased, holiday destination, to courtship, to date of pregnancy,  number of births, to custody – Ed]

She states that women are just as abusive and violent as men are in their relationships and there is such as thing as a battered husband. [Even more than men if the Alberta Study, Straus and Gelles work  and HORS 191 are true reflections Ed]. However, society refuses to help battered husbands because they don’t think women are that violent. Pearson deplores the power imbalance in the marital relationship in which women can falsely accuse a man of abuse and send him to prison with one phone call to the police.

Pearson’s most fascinating topic is female serial killers or “nurturant monsters” as she calls them. She describes one who drugs her victims to death, but before she does, she has the facade of grandmotherly warmth that deceives people into thinking that she is harmless. She describes women in history who have killed as many as 600 victims, but people tend to forget women killers and focus in on male killers who lurk in the shadows and are more directly violent.

[In Ireland 800 skeletons of babies were uncovered recently in a convent specialising in unwed mothers and their infants – Ed]

Because people see violent women as victims of abuse, they often glamourise or approve of their violence, such as in case of Lorena Bobbit emasculating her husband or the murdering wife who was replaced by a younger model.

To sum up, Pearson says, “…to separate one sex from the other as virtuous or blameworthy is to follow a false trail in understanding the causes of violence.”



Still falling on deaf ears !

For too many years policy makers, press releases, and the media alike, have ignored critical data that has not been “fashionable.” Persistent pressure by groups pointing to the fact that children in SMH (single mother households) and from lone parent (i.e. mother) families are actually ‘disadvantaged – not liberated – has been dismissed as merely an inconvenient, if not an irrelevant, suggestion.


What puts children of lone parents at a health disadvantage?

Prof.  Margaret Whitehead & Dr. Paula Holland, Department of Public Health, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, L69 3GB, UK (e-mail: )

See also ; (24 Jan 2003),

The Lancet journal, Editorial and review, Volume 361, Number 9354, 25th January 2003

The health disadvantage of lone mothers in industrialised countries has raised questions about the health of the children who live with them.1-5  Few studies, however, have analysed the health of children living with lone, compared with two parents, with sufficient socio-demographic data to adjust for key confounding and mediating factors. The paper in today’s Lancet by Gunilla Ringbäck Weitoft and colleagues is, therefore, important, not least because it is longitudinal, achieves almost complete population coverage, and links national registers to attach extensive socio-economic data to health ‘outcomes’. The investigators followed up the mortality, severe morbidity, and hospital in-patient use of nearly a million Swedish children over 9 years.

The main findings are that, after controlling for ‘confounding’ factors, Swedish children of lone parents have more than double the risk of psychiatric disease, suicide or attempted suicide, and alcohol-related disease; and more than three times the risk of drug-related disease compared with their counterparts in two-parent households. Boys in lone-parent families also had increased risk of all-cause mortality. [see Appendix below for more information on its conclusions. The full report can be seen at;  – Ed].

The question is what causes this health disadvantage ? The investigators test various explanatory hypotheses and conclude that lack of household resources, as measured by receipt of social benefit and renting rather than owning a home, has a major role in accounting for these increased risks.

The findings still leave major questions about why and how. What are the causal pathways, for instance, by which inequalities in household resources could translate into differential risk to health for lone-parent versus two-parent households? And are these pathways necessarily the same in different countries? The possibility of different social pathways to ill-health in contrasting policy contexts has recently been raised by the findings of cross-country comparisons. Take, for example, the hypothesised pathway that financial hardship of lone parents causes heightened anxiety, depression, and social isolation, which in turn leads not only to psychiatric disease but also to strategies for coping with hardship which include excess use of tobacco and other health-damaging substances. Evidence to support these psychological and social mechanisms has been found in relation to lone mothers in the UK.6-9

Most Swedish lone-parent households, however, cannot be considered to be in financial hardship in the same sense that their UK counterparts are, even in relative terms. In a study comparing Britain and Sweden, less than 10% of Swedish lone-mothers were poor (measured as below 50% of median income, standardised for family size). Most were working, but even among those who were not, only a few were classed as poor by this measure.1,4 The Swedish welfare system largely protected lone mothers from poverty and unemployment, in stark contrast with the UK situation, in which most lone mothers were still poor, even with the help of welfare benefits. Under these conditions, poverty and worklessness, in subsequent analyses, explained much of the health disadvantage of lone mothers compared with couple mothers in Britain but little or nothing of the equivalent health gap in Sweden.4 The search continues for what it is about the economic and social experiences of lone parents in Sweden that is ultimately damaging to their own health and that of their children.

What such studies highlight more generally is the need for a deeper understanding of the policy context in the various societies under study, and the need to question the meaning of what is being measured. Part of the issue may be that the necessarily crude indicators used to measure complex sociological processes may have different meanings in different places. Whilst in the UK and USA, receipt of welfare benefits is often taken as a marker of poverty, what is this variable capturing in Sweden in Ringbäck Weitoft and colleagues’ study? The same question applies to the housing-tenure indicator of renting versus owning a home. In some contexts, housing tenure indicates more than the level of income alone, encompassing notions of degree of control over available resources and perceptions of longer-term security.10,11 Future studies need to take these lines of investigation forward, to increase understanding of the subtleties of the multiple pathways to health disadvantage in specific societies. Such work is imperative to find effective policies, matched to prevailing circumstances, to address these inequalities.

(for References, see below)




NB. “Mortality, severe morbidity, and injury in children living with single parents in Sweden: a population based study.” The full report can be seen at;


Our findings in almost a million children and adolescents showed increased risks of psychiatric disease, suicide or suicide attempt, injury and addiction in children in single-parent households compared with those in two-parent households. Boys in single-parent families had higher risks than girls for psychiatric disease and drug-related disease, and they also had a raised risk of all-cause mortality.

Investigators from early child-psychiatric studies focused mainly on the process of divorce, suggested that the effect of divorce on children could be understood in terms of a crisis model, in which short-term effects related to transition were common, but long-lasting effects were rare. Long-term effects were usually dependent on other stress factors.13 Our findings, however, are consistent with those of more recent studies,5,14-16 in which divorce and living in a single-parent household were shown to have long-term effects.

Much of the raised risks recorded in children living with only one parent in our analyses can be accounted for by differences in socioeconomic circumstances, a finding much the same as those in previous studies.1,5,14,25-26 Parental economic distress, in general followed by inconsistent parental discipline, was associated with behavioural problems such as delinquency and drug misuse among children.27 Lipman28 used the same method in her analysis of Canadian data–ie, regression analysis with adjustments for other factors that could contribute to child outcome–and found that inclusion of socio-demographic variables such as household income, lessened the increase in risk. In our study, the main explanation for the increase in risk was lack of household resources, as indicated by receipt of social-welfare benefit and housing situation. These factors seemed to serve as intermediate paths through which single parenthood affects children’s health and well-being. Somewhat smaller contributions were made by the factors we assumed to occur before the existing family situation (parental age, socioeconomic group, residence, country of birth, addiction and mental illness in parents). Of these factors, socioeconomic group played the biggest part, while a very small part of the raised risk can be accounted for by addiction and mental illness, both of which were more frequent in single parents than in those with a partner. Such factors have an important effect on interaction patterns between parents and children, and there could also be a genetic component involved.

Significant risk increases remained unaccounted for even in our fully adjusted model. Factors such as parental absence, lack of social support, and family conflict could have been important in accounting for these increases. In one-parent households the adult takes on many different roles, including that of being the only breadwinner, which constrains attention, help, and supervision of the child. The loss of one parent as a role model in the home could also be important, especially for boys who grow up with a single mother.29,30 Our results do not, however, lend support to the view that the sex of the custodial parent or child affects the difference in risk. The sons of single parents had worse outcomes than girls only in psychiatric and drug-related disease.

When divorce is the cause of the family breakdown, this process is usually preceded by family conflict, which in many cases continues well beyond actual separation. Hostility between the parents creates an aversive home environment in which children become stressed, unhappy, and insecure. The results of several studies1,7,24 have suggested that children are better off in a single-parent family with a low level of conflict than in an intact family with a high level of conflict.

The main strengths of this register-based study lie in its coverage of the whole population of a country and the potential such analysis offers to adopt a longitudinal approach with a low dropout rate. Use of deaths and hospital-discharge records means that our health measure is not biased by self-reporting, and can be expected to cover most serious morbidity outcomes. However, a diagnosis on a hospital record does not include any information about severity of disease or injury. If children of single parents are more likely to be admitted for less serious conditions, their relative risks will be overestimated. Such an effect is possible, since the decision to admit a child could be affected by the doctor’s judgment of the parent or parents’ capability of taking care of their child at home. Single parents could be more inclined to seek hospital care. Analyses from the UK31 showed higher rates of consultations of general practitioners for children in households with one adult, which could reflect the insecurity of a single adult with no opportunity to share responsibility for a sick child. Whether such effects are applicable to the outcomes of our study is questionable, with the exception of falls and cases of poisoning. However, the risk of death from fall or poisoning was, at least for boys, higher than that of being admitted for the same reason.

In the registers we used, any child in a single-parent household was recorded as living with just one parent, usually the mother. We could not distinguish shared custody from other forms of arrangements, despite the fact that shared custody has become more frequent. To have knowledge about the non-custodial parent’s living-conditions would have been valuable, especially for psychiatric illness and substance misuse. However, the census gives information only about adults in the household in which the child is registered. Psychiatric disease and addiction in the parents of children in single-parent familes is probably underestimated, and consequently, adjustments for such factors cannot attenuate the risk increases in an optimum way.

Another weakness is a lack of information about when in childhood an eventual parental divorce took place, which made it impossible to assess risks in relation to length of time since parental separation. We defined long-term exposure as having been living with the same single parent or the same two parents for at least 5 years; however, we do not know if the situation applies continuously over the whole period.

The personal financial disadvantages of being a single parent vary greatly between different societies in developed countries, with social policy an important determinant.32,33 From an international perspective, the socioeconomic situation of a single parent in Sweden is quite favourable, mainly because of the opportunities available for state-subsidised day-care and financial support. In a comparison of self-perceived health between single mothers and mothers with partners in Britain and Sweden, the increased relative risk for single mothers was the same in both countries, despite a more favourable social policy in Sweden.32 However, different mechanisms seem to be at work in the two countries. One hypothesis is that single mothers in Sweden are affected more by less time than by less money.32 Swedish family and employment policies do not distinguish between single parents and working parents, and do not recognise the special needs of the single parents as the only family breadwinners and carer. If everyday life is characterised by psychosocial stress and loss of control, this surely will have an injurious effect on children’s well-being. Improving prerequisites for combining being a single parent with working life is a challenging task.

Accordingly, preventive efforts aimed at the risk behaviours of children and young people would be especially desirable. Family circumstances can be improved in various ways, so that children gain access to environments outside the family–through social-policy measures, maternal and child health care, and preschool, school, and leisure programmes.




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